CHAMPAIGN — As recent as a decade ago, all eligible Illinois students who applied for financial aid from the state's need-based program received enough money to help pay for college.
This year about half of the college-bound students who apply and qualify — among the poorest in the state — will not receive any grants. And for many of those who will receive awards from the Illinois Monetary Assistance Program, or MAP, the amount will barely cover half of the students' tuition.
The program, which dates back to the late-1960s and is one of the largest state aid programs for college students in the country, faces formidable challenges: increased need among students, a state budget in dire straits and college tuition rates that have risen above inflation.
Amid this environment, the Illinois General Assembly last year called for a statewide task force of educators, researchers, financial aid administrators and students to review the over 40-year-old program and consider possible changes to how money is distributed and how students and institutions qualify to receive grants.
After examining more than 100 different scenarios, such as distributing a smaller amount of grants to more students and adopting a merit component, the task force did not recommend any major overhaul or policy changes to the program.
Instead, the group concluded MAP succeeds in its goal of providing access to college for low-income students and boosting the number of residents who graduate with college degrees or certificates. The report did recommend some minor changes, including a call for further data collection and analysis of the issues. But unless there is a major infusion of cash to the program, the unmet need among applicants is expected to continue.
"It's hard. There's just so many needy students. The only fix would be more money, but (the growing need) always comes at time when there is no extra or not enough money at the state," said Tim Wendt, director of financial aid and veterans' services at Parkland College in Champaign.
The amount needed is great. For example, among the ideas floated for addressing the problem of MAP grants not covering enough of a student's tuition, the task force looked at increasing the maximum amount of the grant by just over $600 to $5,466 per year per student. The price tag: $29 million.
'An access program'
The Illinois Monetary Assistance Program will "not solve all the problems of higher education. It is intended to help students of need cover school costs," said Eric Zarnikow, task force chair and executive director of the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, which oversees the program.
"There is a limited amount of money and it would be great if we had more money to allocate in different ways. ... The challenge is everybody who is eligible for MAP needs it," he said.
To be eligible for a MAP grant, a student must be an Illinois resident, a U.S. citizen or eligible non-citizen, have not received a bachelor's degree, be enrolled in at least three hours per term at an approved Illinois college, degree or certificate program, maintain certain academic progress, not be in default in any student loan and more.
How much money students receive depends on the cost of their education (whether they plan to attend community college or a four-year university) and their family's income, including how much their family can help pay for college. MAP follows the criteria for federal Pell grants to determine eligibility.
MAP is at its heart an access program, Zarnikow said. It helps poor students pay for college. But as more students apply for funding and tuition rises at public and private institutions around the state, the maximum grants awarded to students no longer cover tuition bills. In 2011, the maximum MAP grant of $4,844 for a student attending a four-year public university in the state covered 43 percent of tuition, compared with 114 percent of tuition in 2000. The maximum grant of $1,900 for a community college student covered 57 percent of a student's tuition in 2011 compared with 100 percent in 2000, according to ISAC.
Although not all eligible students who applied were able to receive grants in recent years, the sheer number of recipients has continued to grow, said Randy Kangas, associate vice president planning and budgeting at the University of Illinois and a member of the task force. MAP fulfills its aim of helping lower-income students attend college and the state has produced more college graduates over the years.
It's also important to note, he said, that graduation rates for MAP recipients are similar to those for non-MAP students when controlling for school choice.
"MAP really works," Zarnikow said, also noting the graduation rates. "It really is a significant investment by the state, but it is one that really pays off."
"The overall problem is — this is true of the state as well as MAP — there is more real need than there is capacity to meet that need," Kangas said.
That real need is expected to rise even though the state's school-aged population will grow slowly, according to ISAC. The commission anticipates the percentage of students coming from low-income families, where parents may not have gone to college or speak English, will continue to grow.
In 2011 about 147,000 Illinois students received MAP funding and about 151,000 eligible students were classified as "suspended." That essentially means the students are wait-listed or denied the grants when the money runs out.
The task force also looked at options that considered giving awards to more students, but because of the budget, the amounts would have to be smaller.
But because MAP awards do not cover tuition any longer, decreasing grant amounts further could prompt students to take on more debt, which is why the commission is reluctant to reduce the amount of awards, Zarnikow said.
An Illinois college student now graduates with close to $25,000 in debt. Reducing the amount of debt a student carries is one of the goals the task force looked at, reviewing options such as increasing the size of the maximum MAP grant, encouraging students to attend community colleges and offering incentives for completing a program on time.
Last year the state doled out $371 million to the program from the state's general revenue fund. Staff with the Illinois Student Assistance Commission are working based on the assumption the appropriation will be flat at $371 million for the next fiscal year, ending June 30, 2014. Gov. Pat Quinn is expected to deliver his annual budget address in the beginning of March, but the Legislature in recent years hasn't passed a budget until late spring.
The challenge, ISAC spokesman John Samuels said, is that the commission will award grants before staff know the exact appropriation. A decade ago, when all eligible students would receive aid, that wasn't a problem, he said. But around this time in late January, as students start submitting their Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSAs, commission staff must closely monitor those submissions to determine eligibility and the availability of funds.
For the student planning to enroll in a university or community college this fall and who anticipates needing financial aid, the bottom line is: apply early.
"Get your place in line. We try to tell everybody to do that," Wendt said. Even if the family's 2012 taxes are not finished, estimate them using 2011 numbers, he tells parents and students.
Ten years ago Parkland College was still awarding MAP grants as late as October. Now it's not uncommon for the commission to announce the program is "suspending" students in March.
"When I was a senior in high school, my mom told me, 'Hurry up and apply early'," said Lashaunta Washington, a first-year Parkland College student studying psychology.
Today she's glad she did. Washington receives about $1,700 in MAP grants for the current school year "and without that I'm not sure if I'd be able to pay rent or cover any of my living expenses," she said.
Washington would not have dreamed of delaying going to college if the grants did not come through. But if they hadn't, she said, she imagines she would have been forced to increase her work hours (she works at Parkland's career center) or take out more student loans, though the idea of taking on more debt scares her.
"My mom is still paying off hers (student loans)," she said.
Compared with traditional, dependent students attending four-year institutions and living at home with their parents, community college students or adult students may not fill out their FAFSA, the paperwork required for MAP grants, until later in the year.
Community college effect
Originally offered for traditional, full-time students attending four-year institutions, MAP has over the last 25 years been expanded to include community college students (the number of those recipients are up 28 percent since 1986) and part-time students. About 70 percent of the students who are denied grants because the state has run out of money are community college students, he said.
"The biggest problem is the early cut-off date for our students," Wendt said.
The commission found 11 community colleges in southern Illinois had fewer MAP claims in recent year and fewer recipients.
The task force did consider (and ultimately did not recommend) establishing an early deadline for students. Going that route could hurt community college students and downstate students who tend to apply later for schools.
"A student who is a victim of downsizing could decide to (apply) right before school starts. The factory might shut down and after 20 years a worker decides to enroll. We get those students and our veterans right out of the military because it will be an easier transition for them," Wendt said.
Wendt said driving home the message of applying early has worked as he has seen claim rates go up for the college in recent years.
The task force's report stated that nearly everyone in the group supported the idea of extending MAP's processing deadline for non-traditional or first-time students. These "are the most price-sensitive group of students," the report said. And they used to make up nearly half of all MAP recipients, but now that number is closer to 40 percent because the cut-off dates keep moving up.
Again, the problem is how to pay for this change.
The task force report did conclude additional advising in the areas of financial aid and academic counseling will help students in high school as well as in college.
In their study of completion rates, the task force's data analysis did show that if a student drops out of a four-year institution and re-enrolls in a community college the following fall, it is rare for the student to go on to graduate or complete a certificate program. As a result, the task force recommended a one-year "time-out" for MAP recipients who might fall into this category before they can receive any more grant money.
Illinois Monetary Assistance Program (MAP) funding at area schools (2010-2011 data)
SchoolNumber of MAP recipientsTotal MAP funding receivedUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign6,516 students (or 20% of undergraduates) $27.5 millionUI-Springfield839 (27%)$2.8 millionUI-Chicago7,207 (27%)$28.5 millionParkland College1,369 (16%)$1.55 millionDanville Community College487 (15%)$448442Eastern Illinois University3,040 (31%)$10.9 millionIllinois State University4,239 (23%)$15.3 million
Who receives the grants?
— 21 percent of Illinois undergraduates receive funding
— 65 percent are women
— 47 percent are white, 27 percent are black, 13 percent are Hispanic, 6 percent are Asian, 7 percent are 'other'
— 58 percent are dependent students, 42 percent are nontraditional or independent
Number of eligible students "suspended" or wait-listed by state due to lack of money from state