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Quinn stresses plans for student financial aid expansion

DeKALB – Adrianna Carr has dreams of working in public relations for a company like Disney, which she said wouldn’t be possible without state tuition assistance to earn her business management degree from Northern Illinois University.

Carr is one of 140,000 Illinois college students who receive a Monetary Award Program grant from the state. Had she waited a couple of weeks longer to apply, she could have been one of the more than 150,000 who qualified, but were denied because funding had run out.

Illinois awarded $373 million in MAP grants last year to residents attending in-state universities who demonstrate financial need, with money going to less than half of those who were eligible, according to the Illinois Student Assistance Commission.

Under the budget proposed by Gov. Pat Quinn, about 20,000 more students across the state could receive MAP grants with the help of a $50 million bump in funding to the program included in Quinn’s fiscal 2015 budget.

Quinn flew to DeKalb on Thursday and visited the NIU campus to promote his budget, which calls for making Illinois’ “temporary” 67 percent income tax hike permanent and doubling MAP grant funding over the next five years.

“We want to make sure we invest in scholarships,” Quinn said. “We understand how important college education is to the families and students of Illinois, but it’s getting more and more expensive. We want to make sure it’s affordable to working families.”

A law passed in 2011 with solely Democratic support increased the personal income tax rate from 3 percent to 5 percent. It was designed to be temporary, with the provision that the rate would decline to 3.75 percent Jan. 1.

Quinn warned that the MAP program would be cut by $50 million if this is allowed to happen, leaving 21,000 more Illinois college students across the state without grants.

“We cannot have the money run out and [have] a lot of the dreams extinguished,” Quinn said. “That’s not the right way to go in Illinois or America. We’ve got to invest in the people who want to learn. We want a lifelong learning society.”

Quinn is running for re-election in November against Republican Bruce Rauner. Republicans have condemned Quinn’s plan for extending the unpopular income-tax increase as a broken promise to the public. If the tax increase does roll back, it would create an estimated $1.6 billion revenue decline for fiscal 2015 and an even greater decrease in fiscal 2016.

Rauner has said the revenue shortfall can be made up through budget cuts, although he has not specified what exactly he would cut.

Carr, a junior from Chicago, said without MAP money and other scholarships, she’d likely work at a job to make ends meet instead of going to college to study something she’s passionate about.

“Without that money, I don’t think I’d be able to go to school,” Carr said. “I was kind of freaking out because I didn’t know if I would make the cut.”

About one in three NIU students received MAP grants last year, but about 1,400 who qualified did not receive one last year because there wasn’t enough funding available, according to Rebecca Babel, the director of student financial aid.

Students who don’t receive a MAP grant are faced with difficult choices to pay for college, she said.

“They might work a second job or it might affect the number of classes they take,” Babel said. “They might not buy all of the books for their classes. I think they make all sorts of choices to cope with it.”

Students could receive a maximum of $4,720 for the 2013-14 school year, which covers about 35 percent of tuition and fees, Babel said. The MAP grant at one time covered almost all of a student’s tuition, but the grant has paid for less as the cost of college has risen, she said.

NIU President Doug Baker echoed Babel’s sentiment about the rising cost of tuition as well as Quinn’s concerns about the average $24,000 debt burden placed on new college grads.

“Rising tuition has priced some students out,” Baker said. “I’d welcome a $50 million increase in MAP grants. I think the governor’s very serious and it appears he has some support in Springfield.”

Quinn also addressed the $12 million budget cut NIU would face if the tax increase ended. The cut would drop NIU’s budget from $93.4 million to $81.8 million, adding to the 21 percent the university’s budget has already been cut in the past decade.

Baker will visit Springfield next week to share his concerns.

“It’s clear,” Baker said, “higher education would be hurt tremendously.”

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