Posted Online: Jan. 05, 2013, 11:43 pm

Pensions affect Illinois college scholarships

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By Eric Timmons,

A key aid program for low-income Illinois college students is assisting hundreds fewer Quad-Cities students this year than last as the state pours more resources into meeting pension needs.

At Black Hawk College, 418 fewer students received financial support through the Illinois Monetary Award Program for this school year compared to last. At Augustana College, 62 fewer students received a MAP grant in 2012 compared to the previous year.

Statewide, MAP funding was cut from $420 million last year to $280 million this year, a reduction the state's assistant budget director Abdon Pallasch linked to the rising cost of public pensions, which are crowding out other state programs.

Joanna Dye, Black Hawk's director of financial aid, said of students not getting the grants, "I think many of them are taking out more students loans because our student loan volume is going up."

Augustana Vice President of Enrollment Kent Barnds said the uncertainty surrounding the MAP program had led the college to try and recruit more students from outside Illinois.

The neediest students, from low-income backgrounds or who are the first to go to college from a family, are those most affected by the problems with MAP, Mr. Barnds said.

Students can get close to $5,000 a year for college costs through the program, an amount that Augustana finds difficult to make up through other funding assistance for students, Mr. Barnds said.

A decade ago, the MAP program received enough money to offer grants to all eligible students who applied, a newly-released report by a special task force established by the state legislature found.

Now, about half of applications received are suspended because of a lack of funding, the report said. Cutbacks have led to a system where grants are awarded on first-come, first-served basis to eligible low-income students, the Illinois Student Commission MAP task force report stated.

Demand for MAP grants has risen while tuition costs have continued to rise and state funding for college programs has been flat, the report said.

In 2002, MAP grants completely covered the cost of community college tuition and fees but the maximum award now only covers about 51 percent of the cost, according to the MAP task force report, published this week.

"While MAP is one of the state's most successful public policy initiatives and while the state has attempted to prioritize MAP funding in difficult budget times, approximately 50 percent of eligible students do not receive a grant due to limited resources," said MAP task force Chairman Eric Zarnikow.

Mr. Zarnikow is executive director of the Illinois Student Assistance Commission.

At Black Hawk, Ms. Dye said, about $700,000 in MAP grants will be disbursed for this school year, down from $1 million.

The deadline to apply for MAP funding for students that meet financial assistance requirements used to be in August, Ms. Dye said, but has been moved to March. For many community college students, that's too early, Ms. Dye said, with the result that many miss the boat for financial aid.

Mr. Pallasch, said the problem is just one example of how the state's pension crisis is hurting education funding. "The exploding cost of paying these pensions is causing cuts to college scholarships and education in general," he said.

The state has an estimated $95 billion unfunded pension liability and lawmakers have so far been unable to agree on a way to reduce that liability.

"Everything is affected by it," state Rep. Pat Verschoore, D-Milan, said of the pension problem.

State pension contributions have risen by $1.8 billion since 2010 and, at the current rate of growth, the state will spend more on pensions than education by the 2016 fiscal year, according to an estimate released by Gov. Pat Quinn's office.

Lawmakers in Springfield could vote next week on a reform bill to address rising pension costs in the final days of a lame duck session before a new General Assembly is sworn-in.

However, the bill contains a proposal to gradually shift the cost of pensions for teachers paid by the state back to local school districts over 30 years that Rep. Verschoore and other local lawmakers are oppose.

MAP grants

Students attending on MAP grants 2011/2012 2012/2013 (estimated)
Black Hawk 1,115  697
Augustana   623  562
Sauk Valley   460  414
Carl Sandburg  717  646
Source: Illinois Governor's office