Aid restored to low-income college students

October 18, 2009 (CHICAGO)

The program will cost the state more than $200 million, to pay for scholarships for thousands of low-income students and questions remain about where the money is to come from.

Elena Suarez and Dillion Goodson are college students of a different sort. While Goodson's education isn't dependent on Sunday's approval of a bill to fund the state's scholarship fund, Suarez's senior year as a DePaul University student would be over without it.

"I could not come up with [the money] if I worked for three months where I work right now," Suarez said.

And she won't have to. Flanked by college students and administrators, Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law Senate Bill 1180 Sunday afternoon, which gives him the authority to pay for the scholarships of roughly 138,000 low-income college students in Illinois. The measure gave Quinn the approval to spend approximately $205 million on scholarships known as MAP grants.

"We do have the money. The General Assembly made a committment of the state of Illinois, and I just signed it, that this is a funding priority of the state," Quinn said.

The governor plans to pay for the move by borrowing some $1 billion from surpluses in the state's road fund and other unspecified accounts. The money would not only be used to pay for the scholarships but also to pay down some of the state's other debt.

Alfredo Calixto of St. Augustine College says the MAP grant program affects more than half the students at his school.

"If you have 800 students leaving in one semester, of course, it affects the budget," he said.

The borrowed funds have to be paid back in 18 months and critics of the move, like government watchdog group the Institute for Truth in Accounting, says with the MAP grant funding, the governor and lawmakers are 'robbing Peter to pay Paul.'

"We either need to raise revenue somehow, or we need to cut expenditures. Switching money from one pocket to the other is not going to solve it," said the Institute's Sheila Weinberg.

In the meantime, despite the temporary saving of the scholarships, some students still worry about next funding crisis.

"I'm not too concerned for myself as an out-of-state student, but for my fellow students, once we look at this MAP thing in the spring," said Goodson, who is the DePaul University student body president.

The MAP grant funding crisis is the result of cuts due to the state's budget deficit. Other options for raising the money included a tax amnesty plan and raising the cigarette tax.

Governor Quinn has been clear that he thinks the best way to pay for the grants is by increasing the state's income tax, which is unpopular among lawmakers, especially with the February 2 primary election around the corner.

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