State board approves major cuts to student financial aid

  • By Peter Sachs
  • Staff Writer
  • June 26, 2009 @ 3:30 PM

At a meeting where participants turned tearful at times this morning, the Illinois Student Assistance Commission voted to eliminate a key financial aid program for the spring 2010 term in response to the state budget crisis. 

In addition, the commission voted to cut funding for students already approved for fall grants. Some 137,000 students across the state, including tens of thousands in Chicago, will get need-based grants this fall, but at a rate of only about $850 for every $1,000 originally promised.

The cuts in the Monetary Award Program are one of the first changes as a result of the doomsday budget approved by the state legislature last month.

The budget hasn't yet been signed into law. But because the commission’s next regular meeting isn’t until September and grants must be handed out before then, the commission had to act based on the worst-case scenario, commission chairman Donald McNeil said.

“We need to plan now, today, for the contingency that might occur, which is that all we might get is what’s on the table right now,” McNeil said.

The commission coordinates much of the financial aid, including loans and grants, available to students attending public universities in the state. 

The Monetary Award Program awards hundreds millions of dollars in grants to needy undergraduates.

The funding crisis comes at a time when ISAC got more applications for grant aid than ever. It had to turn away 130,000 students, even before the state’s funding cuts hit.

“We’re going to be suspending as many students as we serve,” said Susan Kleemann, the commission’s director of research and planning.

While all the members of the commission expressed dismay at the funding situation, only one, student commissioner Kelvin Wing, voted against it.

“What are the state’s priorities? We are taking out the foundation of our state,” Wing said before voting. “I believe the legislators have failed the students of this state.”

Wing, a senior political science major at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said outside of the meeting that “honestly, it’s breaking my heart.”

That much was clear from watching the faces of many in the audience, including about 30 college students from across the state who get scholarships through the Golden Apple program to encourage future teachers. Those scholarships are also being curtailed this year.

“Without the Golden Apple scholarship, some of my family cannot go to college, cannot achieve their goals,” scholarship recipient Heather Knobloch told the commission, referring to her peers in the program as family.

Today’s vote means that students may have to start lining up other ways to pay for college after this fall, such as private, high-interest loans or jobs after classes. If the legislature approves a budget with greater funding for the scholarship grants, ISAC could meet again this summer to increase the award amounts.

Shawn Warden, a post-secondary specialist at the Chicago Public Schools, predicted dire problems for the students whom she told could count on monetary award grants once they graduated from high school.

“They’re going to be standing on the corner because they’re not going to have a Plan B,” Warden told the commission. “College is what we told them you need to do, and I told them we had a way to do it.”

Daily News Staff Writer Peter Sachs covers higher education. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 18, or peter [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.