A "MAP" Of How Higher Ed And Students Are Lost In Illinois' Political Battle

Jan 29, 2016
Originally published on February 1, 2016 4:33 pm

College campuses (and the politics behind them) are taking center stage in Springfield's festering stalemate.

Gridlock has kept money from going to higher education since July. Then, in a matter of hours on Thursday, Democratic lawmakers approved a plan that would pump $720 million dollars into the system. Republicans are calling it a "cruel hoax" that's giving students false hope, even though they, too, say they want to help higher ed. It's a scenario that demonstrates the partisan tensions, and politics, at play.

Legislators on the House higher education committee recently had the chance to meet someone.

"Good afternoon, thank you for having me. My name's Jamie Anderson, I'm a senior at the University of Illinois Springfield. I'm from Stillman Valley, Illinois which is a small town ten minutes outside of Rockford, Illinois."

Anderson says everyone in her life had told her, she'd never make it that far.

"I was a ward of the state. I was a foster child for 11 years. And I just didn't have a family to afford for me to come to college," she testified Wednesday.

She says the Monetary Award Program made it possible.

"I would not be here today if it wasn't for the MAP grant. I would not be the student leader I have become today if it was not for the MAP grant," Anderson, 22, told representatives.

Illinois gives MAP grants to low-income students, who don't have to pay them back. The Illinois Student Assistance Commission says some dozen years ago, a grant could cover tuition and fees at an average community college or state university. Now, though, the biggest MAP grant, worth $5000, covers less than a third the price of university tuition. Still, demand for the grants is high enough that the state runs out of money, so eligible applicants get turned away.

This year, an added complication: Though students were awarded grants on paper, there's no money to back them up. The funding for them was never authorized. Like various social services, the MAP grants are a casualty as lawmakers and the governor fight an ideological battle for the state's future.

Some schools are fronting the money; others did, but aren't anymore.

They don't have money either.

Public universities and community colleges have gone more than half a year without any state funding.

Because of that, Western Illinois University, and Eastern are in the midst of layoffs. Come March, Chicago State says it won't be able to make payroll.

"We all passionately believe that higher education is a critical service in the state of Illinois and I believe that this is the first step to making sure that that is funded," said Rep. Kelly Burke, an Evergreen Park Democrat who's sponsor of the legislation swiftly approved on Thursday, which she says is a serious effort to begin funding higher education.  

Her proposal would also send millions of dollars to community colleges, but it completely leaves out four-year universities.

Democrats used their majorities to pass the higher ed bill out of the House and the Senate. Republicans fought it -- even though colleges and universities are big employers in many GOP districts, meaning that as an election nears, they can expect campaign mailers accusing them of not caring.

Republican Rep. Norine Hammond, of Macomb, where WIU is based, says it's just the opposite.

"The response from one of my community colleges residents is what rings very true and rings in my mind. She said: 'We don't need any more promises without the money. We don't need any more promises without the money.' And regrettably, that is exactly what this is," Hammond said during House debate.

A promise that can't be kept, Republicans say, because Illinois doesn't have the money. Burke's SB2043 spends $721.5 million ($324.4 million to community colleges for operating costs and $397.1 million to the Monetary Award Program), at a time Illinois has a $6 billion deficit.

Republicans want Democrats to come on board with their version of a rescue, which does including funding for public universities. The GOP also gives the Republican governor something he covets: Greater ability to manage the budget (in other words, to make cuts elsewhere, ostensibly to free up cash for higher ed).

Democrats don't generally trust Rauner, that notion hasn't gone over well.

Rep. Lou Lang of Skokie, a top Democrat, called it a way to give Rauner "unprecedented, king-like" powers "to shift dollars anywhere he wants in the state budget, any way he wants, any whim he has, for any reason whatsoever."

Democrats have the power to keep the GOP plan bottled up, and it's likely they'll use it.

But Rauner has power too, in his veto pen. He's already said he'll use it to kill Democrats' bill, which didn't pass with enough support to override him. Even if the handful of extra votes could be summoned, the process could take months, by which time spring semester will be over.

In the meanwhile, lawmakers from both sides have sent press releases, touting their role in helping higher education -- Republicans for their stalled plan, Democrats for the one on a death march to the governor.

Rep. Dan Brady, a Republican whose district is home to Illinois State University, says he doesn't know what's best for students wondering where it leaves them. Is it better to allow them to continue to flounder, he asked, or to advance legislation, leaving students to think that MAP money is coming, when he says it's really a facade?

"Don't play this hoax on students that are waiting on funding for MAP grants. This is unconscionable to do that to those students! Think of the students. Think of the students," Brady said, before voting against the Democrats' legislation. One such student, Jamie Anderson, the UIS senior who told her story to legislators, says she'll graduate this year, regardless of what happens.

"I'm glad to defeat all the odds that everybody has set against me," she said. "And I would really appreciate it if you guys continue to keep the MAP grant funding."

Anderson may be on the way to getting her degree, but she says there are tons of students like her who still need it. On Monday, Illinois will enter its eighth month without a budget; universities will enter their eighth month without any state money.

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