Olivia Barker, a first-generation college student and sophomore at Dominican University in River Forest, may have to put her dreams of becoming a medical examiner on hold.
The 20-year-old biology major is a recipient of the state’s MAP Grant, or Monetary Assistance Program, award, which has been frozen in the midst of a nearly year-long budget impasse.
“If the money doesn’t come, I have an outstanding balance, I can’t register for classes,” she said during a Feb. 11 rally at Concordia University Chicago’s chapel.
The lack of MAP funding — which is distributed each year to students who demonstrate financial need — has prompted a frenzy of activity among both students and administrators in colleges and universities across the state.
More than 120,000 students in Illinois rely on MAP funding to help pay college tuition costs and fees. Each eligible student receives up to $5,000. The money for last year’s fall semester should have already been distributed by now, but Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed the budget that would have allocated the funds.
He’s also struck down at least three separate attempts by the Democratic-controlled General Assembly to pass separate bills that would pry loose the MAP grant funding from the budget gridlock.
Rauner, whose proposed budget would cut higher education funding by more than 30 percent, has argued the state doesn’t have the money to pay for the funding.
College administrators say it’s not unusual for MAP grant money to appear late. What is different this time, they say, is that the funds are being delayed at such a late date — and, for some college administrators, seemingly unnecessarily.
“Lawmakers are always looking at the MAP grant, because some people — the Republicans, really — feel like [students] shouldn’t have it,” said Isiah Brandon, a former student at Triton College, who demonstrated in Springfield more than five years ago because his MAP grant was in jeopardy.
“The students start matriculating in August and the university may not get fall MAP payments until November,” said Dominican University President Donna Carroll in a recent phone interview. “The spring MAP payments may not come until March or April. But this is the first time in my 22 years where we’ve gone beyond the semester date and have had to carry students on our cash flow.”
Carroll said that colleges like Dominican are “struggling to do everything we can in the short term not to interfere with students continuing their academic experience. We’re all sensitive to the stresses of the state budget, but this is so protracted now that there’s a growing sense that the [state’s] leadership does not care about these students.”
“This is a human issue, not a political issue,” said Concordia President Daniel Gard during the Feb. 10 demonstration in River Forest. Gard said he’s written letters to “every legislator, senator and the governor,” but has only gotten responses “from maybe 25 of them.”
State Rep. Chris Welch (D-7th), the vice chair of the House Higher Education Committee and whose district includes both Dominican and Concordia, said Rauner is threatening to veto another bill, which he co-sponsored, that would free the MAP funds.
“That bill passed the House and Senate, and it’s sitting on the governor’s desk,” Welch told the students. “We need to make sure he hears your stories and puts names and faces to this issue so he can understand that this is real. You guys need to call the governor.”
More than 550, or around 40 percent, of the roughly 1,500 undergraduate students at Concordia are eligible to receive MAP funds this academic year. Concordia’s average MAP grant award is roughly $4,000. The total amount of unfunded MAP grant money Concordia has been floating is $2.3 million.
More than half of Dominican’s roughly 3,500 undergraduates are eligible to receive MAP funds, said Carroll. She said that, like Concordia, the school has had to carry the cost so far this year while administrators hold their breath.
The missing state funds amount to around $5 million, or around 10 percent of the school’s operating revenue. She said the school has credited MAP payments to students’ accounts in anticipation of the state eventually releasing the funds.
If that doesn’t happen, she said, many of her students will be forced to drop out of college to pursue work, go deeper into debt or enroll at a community college or a public four-year institution.
Carroll and Gard said their institutions have consciously tried lowering the barriers of entry into their schools to low-income and first-generation college students, many of whom are minority — good deeds that, so far, are costing them.
Sanora Acevedo, a sophomore at Concordia with junior credits, is the child of Mexican immigrants who came to the United States in the 1980s. Her father is a school bus driver and her mother is a maid, but they taught Acevedo the value of education.
The 19-year-old criminal justice major and aspiring police officer took that to heart. Despite graduating from a high school in the Chicago suburbs that was overcrowded and academically uninspiring, she enrolled at Concordia with 18 college credits.
“I had planned on going into the military after graduation, but now it feels that that would have to be my only option to pay for my education,” she said. “That’s something I don’t want to have to do, because I feel like the military should be a life-changing experience, not something you’re obligated to do just to pay for school.”
When Acevedo learned of her predicament through an email she received one day, she contacted her friend Henry Garcia, the vice president of the college’s student government, because “he would know the political words and the terminology.”
Garcia, 21, and a senior natural science major, said MAP funding has been a discussion at each of the organization’s weekly meetings since November. He said he’s constantly updating his fellow student legislators about pending bills and actions in Springfield related to MAP. The students, he said, are on heightened alert.
Khari Newton, 18,an accounting major at Concordia who commutes to the college from her home in Chicago, said she may have to transfer to a community college if her MAP funding doesn’t come through.
“It’s ironic, because I’m accounting major who doesn’t have any money,” she said.
“If they decided to take this money away from us, I’d be forced to drop out of college. There’s no job I could get right now that would enable me to afford this kind of money. I’d have to transfer and I really don’t want do that, because this has become like a second home for me.”