More than 200 days have passed since the State of Illinois has operated on a budget. Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic state legislative leaders continue to disagree on a solution, and while the fight goes on, state-funded schools are among the many services getting squeezed.
On Wednesday, Republican state lawmakers announced a proposal to allow Chicago Public Schools to declare bankruptcy, which would put the schools under state control.
Illinois universities – and their students – are also facing challenges. About 128,000 students receiving education grants through the Monetary Award Program, or MAP, are no longer getting that money from the state, making it impossible for some to pay for their classes.
Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson speaks with Randy Dunn, president of the Southern Illinois University [SIU] system, and Alejandra Le, a junior at Chicago State University and MAP recipient, about the effects of the impasse.
How many students have decided not to re-enroll because of the grant money?
“At this point we’re still in the process of determining that exact number. If you look at the SIU system as a whole, we have about 7,700 students who are MAP eligible. Now of course, in any given semester, not all of those students will decide to come to school. Some will have other plans or make other arrangements, so we’re looking right now at what the impact of this is. We anticipate that, at the two undergraduate campuses for Southern Illinois University, we could be looking at hundreds of students. Until we make the individual contacts, finding out why those students are not coming back for next semester, it’s difficult to say. But certainly it’s not beyond the pale to think that we may be looking at anywhere from 200 to 400 undergraduates not returning to one of the two SIU campuses.
What I’ve said is that, if you extrapolate that to the state as a whole, we could potentially be looking at thousands of students who will lose that accessibility to higher education this semester. Understand, Jeremy, that MAP dollars go not just to university students, but this is a contract or covenant between the state and all students. This applies to students at community colleges or private institutions, but all of the colleges and universities are in the process of making contacts via their advisers and recruiters to find out why these students are not back for spring.”
Is this mostly low-income students that you’re talking about?
“Yes it is. There are income guidelines for accessibility to MAP, so we try to find out why those students aren’t back. It won’t be because of MAP for all of them, but we anticipate a significant number of students state-wide because, not knowing how this all will play out, decide to take a semester off or longer.
One of the things we have happening is that all of the public universities in the state, so far, are continuing to front the MAP money from our own institutional funds. But we’ve had to change that message to the students to say that if the state doesn’t come through with that reimbursement, if they do not fund MAP and make it whole, we would have to come back to the students and ask for payments on their accounts. I think that’s had a chilling effect on some number of them in looking at what to do for spring semester.”
How long can you continue to do that, to front the money?
“We’ve committed for spring semester, and as I talk to my colleague presidents around the state, everyone’s doing that on a semester-by-semester basis. But understand that it’s not that we just haven’t seen the MAP money, the state support of public university operations has not been appropriated either. We have seen no support from the state of Illinois, it’s part of the funding stream for all of the public universities and it cannot go on forever.
I think all of us are very hesitant to give a certain date, to say that at some point we are going to cut all of this off because we all want to ensure that all of our students can come back to school. But this is not a situation that can go on indefinitely.”
What would your message be to the state legislature and the governor?
“Within the past 20 years, Illinois has been recognized as a state with a system of public higher education that was really among the best in the country. And over these past 20 years, we have seen this dismantling; an incremental approach in which we’ve seen a disinvestment in the work of the state universities.
I do worry that we’re just going to continue this to the point that we give up so much of what defines us as strong state universities that we’re going to turn around and not be able to put it back again. It’s not just educating students, that’s the core work obviously, but if you look at what we do around economic development, regional support and services and quality of life, most of us are involved in public broadcasting, there are a range of services that great state universities provide. We are stewards of the places we are in, and we’re in a time where I think we are about to lose that here in Illinois if we cannot get a solution to this budget stalemate that we have in front of us.”
How has the loss of this grant affected you?
“It’s affected me greatly, actually. For the first time in three years, I have a balance. And I typically don’t work during the week, and now I have to commute back from school to my job, which is a 45 minute to an hour drive, so sometimes I don’t get lunch. It’s very difficult because I am working to pay off this balance and I don’t want to ask my mother for money. I am a first-generation student and my mother does not have the money to put me through college. I’ve relied on the MAP grants and now that the grant isn’t here, it’s hitting me and I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do for next semester.”
How much money is that balance?
“Probably $1,000. Typically it costs around $5,000 per semester. The MAP grants usually cover that. Pell Grants usually give you about $2,800 and then MAP grants give you about $1,500 to $1,600, depending on how you fill out your FAFSA and how much your parents make. The reason I have that balance is because I don’t have those MAP grants and I have to find a way to pay that off.”
What is your backup plan if you are unable to continue at Chicago State?
“Right now I honestly don’t have a backup plan. The only real backup plan I have is to work. I recently got a new job. It’s paying me fairly well, so honestly the only thing I’m thinking about is that if the doors are not opened for me and all higher education students, I will probably just continue to work until I can find an institution that is affordable.”
What were you hoping to do with your degree?
“With my psychology degree I wanted to continue on and get my Masters in clinical mental health and then I wanted to get my Ph.D. in marriage and family therapy. That’s not looking so bright for me right now.”
Who do you blame for this situation?
“Honestly it’s not our lawmakers. I don’t blame anyone. It’s just something that’s out of our control.”
You feel it’s out of your control, there’s nothing you can do about it?
“I personally feel that if we launch a missile and all public organizations and institutions get together and make it clear that we need a state budget, I feel that we can do something about it. However we need to join together and Illinois doesn’t fully grasp this, but we need to join together and launch this missile so that it can land on the desk of Bruce Rauner.”
Between Bruce Rauner and the Democratic legislature, you don’t blame one more than the other?
“I don’t blame one over the other. Typically because it is not a one-man team.”