Funding for the Illinois Monetary Award Program has shrunk in recent years, while the number of applicants has grown. The combination is making it necessary for college students to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid forms earlier than ever.
“Because we don’t have enough money to fund everyone who’s eligible for MAP, students will have the best chance of getting aid if they file their FAFSA as soon after Jan. 1 as they’re able,” says Katharine Gricevich, a spokesman for the Illinois Student Assistance Commission.
The Illinois MAP is a pool of money the state government distributes through ISAC to students who attend colleges and universities in Illinois that meet state approval requirements. According to Marty Rossman, North Central College director of financial aid, the state simply does not have enough money to keep up with the increasing number of qualified applicants.
“As you can imagine, with the financial situation in Illinois, there have been no increases to the budget for the MAP grant program,” Rossman says. “Actually, there have been slight decreases.”
Students who are eligible for the grant program might find themselves without government financial aid, as the program’s funding has declined in recent years. The state set aside $370.8 million for MAP in fiscal year 2013, more than $40 million less than the amount ISAC distributed to students in 2012. Although the state’s funding will remain stagnant in 2014, distributing about $373.2 million of aid, this is little comfort to students struggling to receive financial help.
“A decade ago, ISAC was able to offer MAP grants to every eligible student who applied, making awards all the way through the end of the summer,” says Eric Zarnikow, executive director of ISAC. “More recently, though, funding for the grant has stagnated or even been cut. At the same time, college costs have gone up, more students than ever want to go to college and many families’ and adult students’ finances took a hit because of the Great Recession. All of those factors have led to rising demand for a resource that has been squeezed by the limitations of the state budget.”
Because of the state’s volatile financial situation, Zarnikow says that, in 2013, eligible students who applied after March 1 were given no funding.
“Instead of being able to give grants to all the eligible applicants today, we can only offer awards to about half the eligible applicants,” he says.
The General Revenue Fund, which Gricevich describes as “the state’s checking account,” consists of money drawn mostly from individual, sales and corporate taxes. MAP funding competes for a piece of the budget alongside such funding needs as education, human services, public safety and others. Gricevich says that rising health-care costs and issues with the Illinois pension systems are to blame.
North Central’s Rossman sees three possible solutions to these financial woes: “Change the eligibility criteria to make fewer students eligible, lower the maximum award amount or push the FAFSA filing deadline back further.
“I don’t see funding going up any time soon, but it’s hard to say if it will be decreased further,” Rossman says. “A lot depends on whether the state can get out of the huge budget shortfall.”
With an increasingly bleak financial situation in the Illinois GRF, it is paramount that students seeking financial aid submit their FAFSA as soon after Jan. 1 as possible. However, even if students miss the initial awarding for MAP, Gricevich encourages them to file their FAFSA.
“We keep the eligible applications on file in a sort of waiting list,” Gricevich says. “If we receive a larger-than-expected appropriation or if fewer students claim their awards than expected, we may have enough money to offer awards to the next people in line.”
Besides applying for basic federal aid, there are other benefits to submitting a FAFSA, explains Gricevich. “That single form is also the application for federal grants and loans, work-study, and even some of the programs that are run by the schools.”
For questions about the FAFSA or help filing it, North Central students should contact the college’s financial aid office at 630-637-5600 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Students also may visit isac.org to find a schedule of FAFSA Completion Workshops and contact information for the local outreach staff, the ISACorps. The U.S. Department of Education has more information about FAFSA on its website at fafsa.ed.gov.
Troy Kelleher is a sophomore student writer at North Central College. His story is courtesy of the college.