DeKALB – In her first year at Northern Illinois University, sophomore chemistry major Racquel Vonch of Joliet was financially secure enough to survive without the assistance of a Monetary Award Program grant.
Heading into the 2017-18 school year, however, Vonch became one of thousands of Illinois undergrads who, reliant on the assistance program for low-income students, anxiously waited to see whether the Illinois General Assembly would release MAP grant funding as part of an agreement to end the state’s budget impasse.
“I received good financial standing with NIU as a freshman, and with the financial packet I had as a freshman, I was sold [on attending] the university,” Vonch said. “I was worried about the budget and not getting a MAP grant or to come up with the money if I had to pay it back.”
Unofficial numbers from the 2016-17 school year show that at NIU alone, 5,342 students were recipients of MAP grants, which amounted to more than $19 million in funding.
Their collective uneasiness was eventually ended by the passage of a full-year budget after the Democrat-controlled Legislature overrode Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s total veto of a budget plan that included a permanent tax increase and MAP grant appropriations.
If the Legislature did not approve a budget, Vonch said she likely would have had to pick up more hours at her pharmacy technician job at Jewel-Osco and set up a payment plan with the university. In spite of the unpredictable consequences of the budget impasse, however, Vonch said that nothing would have stopped her from attending the university she loves.
“I would’ve figured out a way to stay here,” said Vonch, who worked a summer internship for the university’s Office of Orientation and Family Connections. “I love how close-knit everyone is and how everyone is able to give a helping hand. There could be a professor you’ve only been in class with for a couple of weeks and they instantly want to help you.”
NIU has had the good fortune of being able to fund MAP grants during the budget impasse, but has informed recipients that, should the state fail to fund the program, they may be on the hook for some or all of the grant money, which amounts to a maximum annual award of about $4,720.
NIU spokesman Joe King said students should receive their 2017-18 MAP grants on time, and the state has reimbursed the university for the grants from past years.
Had the MAP grant funds not been appropriated for this fiscal year, Vonch said she probably would have had to resort to additional student loans, which she said could become burdensome ahead of three more years of college and pharmacy school.
“It’s one less loan that I don’t have to take out, which is always helpful,” Vonch said. “Now I’m not having to kill myself during the school year to come up with the extra money.”
The MAP appropriation for fiscal 2018 is $401 million, compared with the assumption of $373 million the Illinois Student Assistance Commission used to originally estimate 2017-18 MAP grants.
“Because of this additional funding, ISAC will not only fully fund previously announced awards, they are planning to extend the cutoff date increasing the total number of recipients and to make adjustments to the eligibility formula,” King said.
In an email to students and staff after the passage of the budget in July, interim NIU President Lisa Freeman said the MAP grant funding will alleviate the stress on new and returning students reliant on the grants and allow them to focus on their educational goals.
“Even though we are grateful for the clarity and security provided by this latest action, it does not alter the fact that we have absorbed a funding shortfall of more than $65 million over the last three years,” Freeman said in the message. “We must continue the work to enhance the financial stability of NIU by increasing enrollment, becoming more efficient and aligning our resources with our priorities.”
A tool for students and families to calculate estimated MAP grant eligibility is available on the ISAC website.
Should the state of Illinois face another budget dispute that puts MAP grants in danger, Vonch said she’ll worry about it then.
“It’s always scary,” Vonch said. “I guess I’ll hit that path when I come to it. I don’t know what the financial situation will be then, so I’m just taking it a year at a time.”