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Frustrated Students Lobby in Springfield

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Over 300 college students descended on the Illinois General Assembly Thursday, lobbying Springfield legislators to reinstate the guaranteed MAP funds taken away from them this semester.

“How can they do this,” asked Roosevelt University student Katie Hoepfner regarding the 5 percent reduction she and over 140,000 Illinois students received in their spring 2011 semester MAP awards.  “I already work two jobs and barely get by, and now this?”

“Everyone is feeling the pinch,” added Paul Frank, lobbyist for the Federation of Independent Illinois Colleges(FIIC), which represents 58 private non-profit colleges and universities. The FIIC was also responsible for organizing the March 3rd student lobby day in Springfield.  “It’s a big hit for these kids,” Frank said.

The 5 percent cut means Hoepfner, who receives the maximum MAP award of $4,968 per academic year, is losing nearly $250 this semester. The average MAP recipient is out about $125.

Administered by the Illinois Student Assistance Commission(ISAC), the $405 million Monetary Award Program(MAP) helps the neediest undergraduate students.

Every year, ISAC determines a “suspense date,” or deadline, when it will receive applications based on its budget and the estimated number of students who will actually use the grant. Some awarded applicants decide not to go to school or go out of state, freeing up funds for other applicants.

But last year, there was an unexpected 45 percent increase in FAFSA applications received in the week between the announcement of the suspension date and the suspension date itself, much higher that the state financial officials had estimated.

The State Treasurer’s Office confirmed the $405 million earmarked for MAP grants for the 2010-2011 school year were all claimed by April 18 of last year – weeks earlier than normal. Nearly 140,000 qualified applicants received aid, and yet many others who needed it received no aid at all.

“I know it’s a difficult economic time, but investing in students should remain at the core of the state’s budget,” said Dave Tretter, the president of Federation of Independent Ilinois Colleges. “State officials may roll their eyes at 5 percent, but these students really need every cent.”

The Illinois Student Assistance Commission(ISAC) maintains the 5 percent decrease was the best option given the circumstances.

“We had one of two,” said Andrew Davis, ISAC executive director. “We could tell millions of applicants who applied in the last couple of days before deadline they’re getting nothing, or skim 5 percent off the top for everyone. We chose the latter.”

After consulting with the Illinois Association of Student Financial Aid Administators(ILASFAA), which has 500-plus members, and represents 150 Illinois higher education institutions and more than 50 state and federal lending agencies, it was unanimously agreed by both organizations that ISAC make the cut across the board.

“Providing 95 cents for every dollar for everyone was the preferable choice,” Davis said.

“Our aim is to help students, not hurt them,” added Paul Palian, Illinois Student Assistance Commision communications director. “We’d rather spread it out than award larger amounts to less people.”

A possible $25 million increase in MAP funds has been proposed by Gov. Quinn for the upcoming 2011-2012 academic year, but even if approved by the General Assembly, it remains unlikely the aid students lost this semester will be restored.

“I just don’t see it happening,” Palian said. “I mean really, where are they going to get it from?”

For Hoepfner, and tens of thousands of other affected students, that is not welcomed news.

“I know it may it may not sound like a lot of money to some people,” said Hoepfner of her $250 loss. “But what’s the point of going to class if I can’t buy the books?”

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