Junior Roberto Davila is just three credits away from completing his major. But if Illinois fails to fund his Monetary Award Program grant, he will be almost $5,000 short on tuition next year.
The Monetary Award Program (MAP) makes it possible for Davila to attend Knox. With the state budget in limbo, he doesn’t know how he will make up the difference.
“I need all that money to help me stay here. If that goes away, then I can’t stay,” he said.
MAP grants make college more affordable for over 130,000 Illinois residents with the greatest financial need, including one out of every five Knox students, according to Director of Government and Community Relations Karrie Heartlein. Many are the first in their family to attend college. But the gridlocked state government has yet to approve a spending bill for the fiscal year—and with it, funding for MAP.
The state’s Democrat-controlled legislature passed a bill on Jan. 28 that would have funded MAP through the fiscal year. But Governor Bruce Rauner vetoed the measure last month, arguing that it would add $721 million to the state deficit.
On Wednesday night, Democrats attempted to override the governor’s veto and came up two votes shy of the requisite three-fifths majority in the House.
Davila is already considering his options should MAP funding fall through: summer jobs and foregoing study abroad next year top the list. He doesn’t know if it will be enough.
Like most MAP-eligible students, Davila also receives a federal Pell Grant. These funds help him and his mom make his tuition payments.
To make an impact himself, Davila participated in Knox’s campaign to write state representatives and describe MAP’s impact on their lives. He also traveled down to Springfield with two other Knox students and attended a MAP rally with over 300 other students last November.
“All the schools are being squeezed right now. We’re not the only one,” Davila said.
Colleges across the state have waited over eight months for the legislature to approve a spending bill for 2016. The stalemate has hit public universities and community colleges particularly hard because they receive not only MAP funding but a large share of their general budget from the legislature’s appropriations.
Director of Financial Aid Ann Brill confirmed that there would be no change in Knox students’ financial aid packages this year. The grants have been listed as “pending” on recipients’ bills for the time being.
How long schools can wait before requiring students to come up with the money on their own remains an open question.
Rauner has called January’s spending bill, which would have provided the same amount of funding as last year’s budget, “unconstitutional” and “unbalanced.” He is backing two other bills instead: House Bill 4539 and Senate Bill 2349 and contends that they would fund higher education “by reallocating funds and reducing spending in other areas.”
Heartlein, meanwhile, has been organizing Knox efforts to pressure Rauner and the general assembly to fund the grants one way or another.
“The state of Illinois awarded the MAP grant to these students nearly a year ago,” she said. “We really hope and expect that the state will honor that promise.”
In addition to organizing the letter-writing campaign and trip to Springfield with the Office of Financial Aid, Heartlein has reached out to alumni and advocated for MAP at media events and conferences across the state. President Teresa Amott is also urging the state government to act and has addressed a letter to each representative and senator with one or more Knox students in their district.
“These students remain in limbo, waiting for word on whether they’re going to receive the funds they were promised,” Heartlein said. She added that the college has not yet decided on a course of action should MAP funding fall through and is focusing efforts on the legislature.
Heartlein encourages students to come see her if they would like to get involved and contact their representatives.
The issue inspired sophomore Salvador Solis to become more politically involved. A MAP recipient who also attended the rally in the capital, Solis relies on the grant to help pay his tuition each year.
Without it, Solis said, he would have no choice but to drop out and find work. His father, who works as a truck driver, is unable to contribute more than he already provides.
Solis appreciates the efforts Knox has made to help students like him weather the financial crisis and worries about what the school would look like if a large number of its MAP recipients could no longer afford to attend. He hopes to see and participate in continued efforts to save MAP.
“Not a lot of people are talking about it except for the people who are in serious crisis,” Solis said.
He’s also baffled by how the state ended up in this economic situation.
Director of the University of Illinois Springfield’s Public Affairs Reporting Program Charles N. Wheeler III explained that the state created the current financial deficit over the past century by failing to adequately fund public employee pensions.
Wheeler, a longtime statehouse reporter and expert on Illinois politics, said that up until now the state government has always managed to pass a budget.
“We’re in totally uncharted territory,” he said. “Our state has never gone this long without a budget and so nobody has any good crystal ball to predict what’s going to happen.”
According to Wheeler, the bills backed by the governor would provide for higher education funding, including the MAP grants, through accounting gimmicks like waiving the state’s obligation to repay money it borrowed from special funds in 2015. These funds typically pay for targeted services only.
“I think it’s a short-term fix that really isn’t a fix because it doesn’t generate any new money,” he said.
Wheeler suggested that backlash from students and parents could have an impact on Republican representatives by raising concern that they would suffer at the polls. He cited an example from last spring when pushback from constituents led legislators to successfully oppose the governor’s cutbacks to subsidized daycare.
Davila said he voted for Rauner, in part because Davila believed Rauner would support education. The governor has been a large donor to Chicago’s Noble network of charter schools, one of which Davila attended.
Davila wishes he had done more research before voting and encourages student voters to learn where a given candidate stands on the issues most important to them.
“I thought he would ‘shake up Springfield’ and he shook it,” Davila said, referring to Rauner’s campaign slogan. “I feel betrayed by him. Now I know who not to vote for in the next election.”