Column by the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, C.M., and Elmhurst College President S. Alan Ray on the Chicago Tribune opinion page
October 14, 2009
When economic times are at their worst, it is the poor who suffer the most.
This makes Illinois' decision to cut nearly $200 million in scholarship aid for 137,000 Illinois college students all the more perplexing. The state is in the midst of an unprecedented financial crisis, but cutting access to college for students most in need of financial aid is a deplorable public policy decision.
The loss of the Monetary Award Program (MAP) is likely to compel many students at Elmhurst College, DePaul University and other Illinois colleges to drop out, just when they can finally see the finish line.
Research shows that 75 percent of students who drop out of college for financial reasons never return. That is tragic for an entire cohort of students, and it is damaging for Illinois as well.
Since the 1970s, the state has funded MAP as a means to correct the disparity between students who can afford college and those who cannot, providing millions of awards to help students attend public and private universities and community colleges over the years. The average award is a few thousand dollars. Most students must still pay tuition, work and take out loans to pay the rest. But for many, that few thousand dollars is the difference that makes the difference. They could not attend school without it.
Faced with a budget crisis, the state has zeroed-out the funding for spring, in effect cutting the grant in half from the average annual level of about $400 million.
That means these MAP-grant students can afford the fall term, but many now face tough decisions about how to pay for the spring term. Students eligible for MAP grants now confront terrible choices, ranging from taking on more loans and additional outside jobs, to delaying their education or dropping out of college.
This is short-sighted policy on several levels. Dropping MAP funds without warning is unfair to families who budget for college well in advance of a given year.
For DePaul University, this cut will affect nearly 4,600 students, or 28 percent of all undergraduates. For Elmhurst College, it will affect more than 800 students, one-third of the college's undergraduates.
The picture is bleak for low-income students across Illinois. The Federation for Independent Illinois Colleges and Universities estimates that 77 percent of MAP grant recipients come from families with an annual household income of $40,000 or less—and that 47 percent of MAP recipients come from families with an annual household income of $20,000 or less.
Illinois colleges and universities, large and small, are suffering financially as never before and are not equipped to make up a MAP shortfall.
Legislators must recognize that higher education, wherever it's offered, is a public good for the long-term future of Illinois.
We implore Gov. Pat Quinn and the General Assembly to revisit this issue during this week's veto session in Springfield so these students can determine whether they can afford to enroll for the spring semester.