House short 2 votes, stops MAP grant bill override

By Alexander Chettiath and Satta Kendor

Despite being vetoed, a bill that would have fully funded the Monetary Award Program grants with $379 million had its veto overridden by the Illinois Senate on Wednesday but died in the House of Representatives by two votes.

Senate Bill 2043, sponsored by 70 Democrats and no Republicans, would have appropriated $397,073,100 to the Illinois Student Assistance Commission from the general revenue fund for grant awards to students eligible for MAP. The bill would not have appropriated funds for NIU’s Fiscal Year 2016 operating budget. The bill needed 71 votes to override Gov. Bruce Rauner’s Feb. 19 veto but only received 69.

The lack of appropriations is due to Rauner’s FY 2016 proposed budget which includes reduction in funds to public entities, including NIU’s $93 million in allocations for FY 2016 being cut to about $64 million. A lack of agreement on the proposed budget has resulted in an eight-month impasse. Without a finalized budget, state appropriations, such as MAP funding, cannot be given.

NIU expects to get through FY 2016 without state appropriations and will then receive fall 2016 tuition and fees to get through the following year.

“The governor has repeatedly let these students down, students who were promised financial aid by his administration,” said Illinois Senate President John Cullerton in a news release. “Today’s vote is an attempt to give the governor the opportunity to honor his administration’s commitments and prove that education is the priority he says it is.”

NIU President Doug Baker said funding MAP grants and not appropriating funds for four-year universities is like giving someone a saddle but with no horse. He said he remains optimistic on NIU receiving appropriations.

“The good news is the sausage is in the grinder and the sausage is being made,” Baker said at a University Council meeting Wednesday.

Rep. Bob Pritchard (R-Hinckley) said SB 2043 does not have any money behind it and would only reallocate funds from one need to another.

Pritchard has proposed a bill, House Bill 4539, that would fund MAP grants and appropriate $72,874,200 to NIU.

“The difference is the money,” Pritchard said. “It’s tied to another bill that gives the governor authority to make cuts and to take money from designated accounts. I don’t like that but we got to put money behind it and solve this crisis.”

MAP Grants

MAP has helped millions of students in Illinois afford college for over 50 years. MAP serves over 125,000 low-income students in the state. In FY 2015, 128,000 students received MAP, but 160,000 eligible applicants did not get it, according to the Illinois Student Assistance Commission’s website.

“As you know MAP funding has been significantly less than the demand for MAP for some time, so every year for many years there have been students who were eligible for MAP but did not get MAP because of lack of funding, because funds ran out,” said Lynne Baker, managing director for the Illinois Student Assistance Commission.

The average student loan debt for NIU graduates in 2014 was $33,234, according to a study done by the Institute for College Access and Success.

Illinois ranks 11th in the nation for students who need loans to attend college, with 67% of students finishing college in 2014 with loans. Illinois students rank 16th of all states in regards to debt loans. The average student debt in the state of Illinois is $28,984, according to a study done by the Institute for College Access and Success.

MAP grant recipients

“Coming from a low-income family we haven’t been able to save up for college, and any amount of money given is really useful so the need to take out more loans and further student loan debt would be eased,” said Felipe Fernandez, junior biomedical engineering major and MAP grant recipient.

The Illinois Student Assistance Commission is estimated to receive $373 million for MAP for FY 2016, based off of last year’s budget of how many students claimed their MAP grant, Baker said.

If the commission receives $373 million from the state, it would likely cover all of the MAP claims this year, but right now no one knows the final budget, Baker said.

“It’s something that I depend on every year, the MAP grant. It’s something that is of exceptional value and help to me as I am a college student that’s taking a full course load, involved in over 12 student organizations whose also working, paying my tuition and rent,” said Nathan Lupstein, Student Association president and MAP grant recipient.

NIU has cut down on spending in a two-year process started about a year and a half ago called program prioritization, and NIU is much better off than other institutions who have started at a difficult place, but it will take a coalition of universities to move this forward, Baker said.

“In our case we’re eight months now without a budget in the state,” Baker said. “I’m hopeful we’ll have one shortly but it does cause quite a bit of concern when there’s no state budget, no money flowing for our operating budget or the MAP funding.”

NIU has credited MAP for both academic terms while the state negotiates a budget. In the fall NIU spent about $9.7 million for MAP grants that was given to 4943 students. In the spring NIU spent about 8.5 million on MAP grants given to 4392 students.

MAP is important especially coming from a low-income family with only one parent being financially supportive, said Ricardo Quinonez, freshman musical education major and MAP recipient.

“My parents are split up and my mom works a $9 an hour job at a factory [and] to me it’s important because my mom can’t help support us and she doesn’t have much money to give us to go to college,” Quinonez said.

Quinonez said it’s sad to think that students in bad financial situations have to worry about whether or not they will be able to afford college so that they can get an education and get better jobs to support their families.

If there is no state allocation for NIU MAP students, they will have to pay back the credits they accepted because NIU is not in a position to cover those funds, said Alan Phillips, vice president of Administration and Finance, at a Feb. 16 Town Hall meeting.

Enrollment rates at NIU have not necessarily been affected by the state impasse, Baker said.