Every year, tens of thousands of Illinois college students who qualify and apply for a Monetary Award Program (MAP) grant receive nothing. The need-based aid is “first come, first-served” and the state runs out of money well short of meeting the demand.
The average family income of a dependent MAP grant recipient is $35,000 and for independent students, it’s $18,000.
“These are folks who can’t go to college without that help,” said Dr. Jim Applegate, professor at Illinois State University & former executive director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education.
Governor J.B. Pritzker campaigned on increasing MAP grant funding by $50 million-per-year and followed through until COVID-19 hit.
To balance the state budget, Illinois borrowed billions from the federal reserve’s lender of last resort fund. That meant flat-funding for higher-ed and MAP which Dr. Jennifer Delaney says was a huge win — but just a “BAND-AID fix.” She’s an associate professor of higher education at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
Pritzker warned state agencies to expect 5% budget cuts next year and 10% the following year.
The solution is federal stimulus money, Delaney says, especially since CARES Act money has, in many cases, dried up.
“So, institutions are facing a cliff that we’re going to fall off, probably at the beginning of the year, certainly by next academic year,” she said.
That cliff will be much higher for the state’s poorest students, often students of color, according to Applegate, and schools with the least resources.
Students’ 2021 FAFSAs will reflect the economic toll of COVID-19. Delaney says you can see it already with students filing for financial aid adjustments because they or a parent lost a job.
“We’ve seen a large increase in students doing that and institutions trying to accommodate. It does open up additional access to programs like the Pell Grant,” said Delaney.
But now MAP funds are gone, so they’re not receiving additional awards even if their family situation changed dramatically.
Since an influx of federal stimulus is the most direct way to keep colleges afloat during the pandemic, Applegate says who gets elected president will make a substantial difference.
“I don’t know that it’s being political to say if it’s a Biden administration, we are much more assured of seeing that kind of aid come forward, just because of what people, what they said in the campaign,” he said.
At the beginning of the pandemic, many universities funneled money to students through COVID-19 student emergency relief funds and added CARES Act funds on top of that.
At Northern Illinois University the maximum award was $500. The fund has since closed until additional funds become available.
The funding formula for the CARES Act was meant to prioritize vulnerable students. But, as Delaney says, there was an exception.
“Secretary DeVos said it could not be used for undocumented students,” she said. “So at that point, a lot of institutions had to split off CARES funds from institutional funds, because institutional funds still could go to undocumented students, but CARES funds could not.”
Schools tried to provide technology to students. They also face increased costs to run remote classes, not to mention sanitation costs.
Speaking of federal help, Applegate says it’s also important to remember colleges exist within communities — many of which have been hit hard by the virus.
“Imagine if we had a national testing strategy. Where they weren’t competing with one another for tests and paying a lot of money for them,” he said. “Forget funding higher-ed, fund mass testing. That would take away a huge cost factor for many universities.”
A major way Illinois’ financial equation could change is if the Graduated Income Tax plan passes. It could add around $3 billion to the state treasury in its first year.
“Absolutely, that will have an enormous impact on Illinois ability to begin to get itself out of the economic hole it’s found itself in for a while,” he said. “But also, it’ll have an enormous positive impact on our ability to offer high quality, broadly accessible higher education.”
Illinois higher-ed was rebounding from the budget impasse, but COVID-19 has thrust state funding back into uncertainty.
“We had to empty the pantry to stay afloat. And we were thinking there was now going to be a harvest to help us restore the pantry, and disease came and kill the harvest,” said Applegate.
Colleges across the country have begun merging and cutting programs. Cost centers are different for every school, so anything from chemistry to sociology could be on the chopping block.
There’s also something else colleges can do that many have finally started focusing on in the past few years: the effort to recruit and retain Black and Latinx students who have historically been underserved by educational institutions.
“It’s not just the right thing to do. It’s the sustainable thing to do,” said Applegate. “It’s what will make sure we’re still here in 10 years.”