There were so many people from Dominican University who showed up to an April 20 rally in Springfield that one person holding forth at the dais had to stop in the middle of a speech to note their presence.
"We were such a big group, that they had to recognize us," recalled Father Brenden Curran, a Dominican University priest who accompanied 175 of the school's students, faculty and staff members to Springfield for what's called Lobby Day.
The annual event is hosted each year by the Federation of Independent Colleges and Universities — an organization that represents 60 private, nonprofit educational institutions across the state.
David Tretter, the federation's president, confirmed that Dominican had the strongest representation among the rally's 1,200 to 1,500 participants, who hoped to pressure lawmakers into approving a measure that would fund the state's critical Monetary Award Program grants. More than 120,000 cash-strapped college students in the state rely on the money to pay tuition and fees.
Apparently, the pressure worked. Two days after the massive rally, Republican and Democratic lawmakers in the House and Senate voted almost unanimously for an emergency stopgap bill that would release $600 million in already budgeted funds to colleges and universities, including nearly $170 million for the MAP grant program. On April 25, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed the bill into law.
The released MAP grant funding would apply to the second semester of this academic year. The money is less than half of the roughly $397 million the state budgeted for the program last fiscal year; but it's nonetheless a major development, administrators said, considering there hasn't been a budget passed by the state in 10 months.
"We won a big battle, but the war is still ahead if us," said Dominican senior Berto Aguayo, who helped organize the trip to Springfield. "I think this gives us momentum to keep fighting for more funding for higher education."
John DeCostanza, Dominican's director of university ministry, said the absence of critical MAP funding would hit private, nonprofit institutions like his particularly hard.
"If we don't have that money, our students will need to make tremendous changes in their plans," he said, adding that the Dominican delegation, in addition to rallying with other delegations outside the capital building, also marched into the capitol rotunda and rallied in front of the governor's office for nearly two hours.
Curran, who is also a special assistant to the university's president, said the unique sense of urgency at the River Forest institution may have something to do with its student profile. Many of its undergraduates are first-generation college students who are often paying their own way through school.
"On the whole, students here tend to be people who are paying their own way and looking for any creative financial means to get them through to graduation," Curran said. "As self-motivated, first-generation students, I believe they feel their own pioneering efforts are being jeopardized — not by themselves, but by others."
He said he's still getting phone calls from lawmakers asking, "How did you guys do it?" It was a university-wide effort, he notes, with collaboration from students "from every major under the sun" and forgiving professors and instructors, who offered extra credit assignments and other supports for students who participated in the rally.
State Rep. Emanuel "Chris" Welch (7th), whose district includes Dominican and Concordia, said he thinks the students' pressure "had a tremendous effect."
"They let their voices be heard loud and clear," he said. "They were very effective and professional and they were heard. But, let's be clear, the bill that passed was an initiative of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus that we stood up for and fought for to make sure that these universities didn't close their doors at all and that, at least, the kids can get their MAP grants funded for this second semester."
Curran said that the hard work of nailing down the specifics of the released funding — how much each student will receive, which colleges will get how much and how long it will take the state to release the money — hasn't started, yet. And that's before lawmakers even consider whether or not to release the remaining funds budgeted last year — to say nothing of the uncertainty surrounding MAP grant funding in the years to come.
"Until we see money, we cannot believe it's a done deal," Curran said, before expressing some optimism. He said he's heard from legislators on both sides of the aisle that the possibility of more MAP grant allocations will be back in debate when they return from recess on May 3.
Answer Book 2017
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