Loss of MAP grants could cost students

By Bill Lukitsch, @Bill_LukitschDE

Abigail Tochalauski doesn’t have a dream job. She has six.

“It just depends on the day,” said Tochalauski, a sophomore from Peoria studying anthropology and communication studies.

In two years at the university she has picked up a second major, joined a sorority and found a part-time job that schedules her 19 hours a week. But that could all come to a halt if the state does not pass a budget that funds financial aid for higher education soon, Tochalauski said.

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Tochalauski is one of about 130,000 low-income students in Illinois who receive the Monetary Award Program, a need-based grant that has gone unfunded this fiscal year because of the state’s budget impasse. The MAP grant made it possible for her to go away to college after growing up with a mostly absent father and losing her mother at a young age.

“The nicest thing about the MAP grant was that I didn’t have to think about it,” she said. “It allows people who wouldn’t normally do such crazy things as go to college … not worry about it.”

After Tochlauski’s parents split up in 2002, her father was not consistently in her life, and living in a single-parent home was trying. Receiving government food assistance benefits, shopping for clothes in consignment stores and living in subsidized housing made her feel ashamed, she said. 

“It was never something you wanted to talk about,” Tochalauski said. 

Tochalauski was 11 years old when her mom abruptly died of an enlarged heart at age 31. Tochalauski’s family was further fractured, and her living situation became tumultuous. She lived with her mother’s boyfriend until sophomore year of high school before moving in with her grandparents. 

“It was rough,” she said. “I’m the type of person, though, that shuts it down and doesn’t deal with it.” 

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After graduation from Richwoods High School, SIU was one of the more affordable options because she received an enticing financial aid package. Coming to Carbondale meant a fresh start where she could learn to be financially independent, meet new friends and reinvent herself, Tochalauski said.

“Not being at home means I don’t have to walk on eggshells, which is nice,” she said.

Most Republican and Democratic leaders have said they support funding for higher education but remain divided on how much public universities should receive in fiscal year 2016. Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner vowed to veto a partial spending bill to fund MAP grants and operational costs at community colleges that passed the Illinois General Assembly last month. 

After the bill’s passing, Democratic Senate President John Cullerton said the Illinois Senate would wait to send it to the governor’s desk, so he could reconsider his veto promise.

“I would urge the governor to rethink his position, reconsider his priorities and not act rashly but rather in the best interests of these students, their futures and the future of Illinois,” Cullerton said in a statement last month.

The bill was sent Rauner’s desk on Tuesday. 

SIU President Randy Dunn applauded the measure to get funding for cash-strapped institutions around the state as the gridlock in Springfield nears its ninth month.

The university fronted about $15 million for students who were eligible to receive the grants in fall and spring with expectation of reimbursement from the state. But it is unlikely the university would be able to fully fund another semester of MAP grants, and students who received them during the last school year may be forced to pay them back if no state budget is passed, Dunn said.

Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly said Tuesday the cooling-off period Cullerton proposed has not swayed Rauner’s position on the legislation.

“The bill is an empty promise” because it does not provide a revenue source for the spending and the governor will veto it, Kelly said. Rauner is instead supporting a complete appropriation bill that funds higher education at a lower rate than what was originally proposed by the General Assembly in August.

“I feel like it’s all of them,” Tochalauski said when asked if she thought any politicians in particular were to blame for the higher education funding crisis in Illinois.

Tochalauski said she understands why some Illinois residents are reluctant to help send kids like her to college. 

“But at the same time, would you rather it be kids like me turning into a criminal?” she said. “I mean, that’s a possibility.”

Bill Lukitsch can be reached at [email protected] or (618) 536-3329.

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