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Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017 12:08 am

Higher ed rally pressures legislators to end impasse

Tommy Louis, a student attending Illinois College, speaks about how MAP grants have been beneficial to his education.
PHOTO BY LEE MILNER

 

Higher education supporters from around the state gathered Feb. 8 in Springfield to pressure legislators and the governor to end the budget crisis.

The Illinois Coalition to Invest in Higher Education, made up of several organizations representing state colleges and universities, held the Statehouse Rally to Save Higher Education at the first floor rotunda at the Capitol. Students, university employees and politicians spoke of the importance of higher education funding, the benefits of the Monetary Award Program (MAP) and how the lack of a budget is damaging the future of students and communities across the state.

Coalition member Dave Tretter, president of the Federation of Independent Illinois Colleges and Universities, organized the rally. “The coalition was developed in the last few years as a response to the state having no budget for higher education,” Tretter said following the event. “Having no budget affects a lot of people, certainly students, the institutions and the communities where those institutions are located. This is a unified effort to pound the message that we cannot allow this to continue.”

Tretter later explained in an interview how having no budget has affected the state’s higher education system. “We’re already seeing short-term damage right now with layoffs, but the long-term damage is that fewer Illinoisans are being able to get higher education,” he said. “It’s irrefutable how important higher education is. State leaders ought to be interested because it gives things that communities want, such as attracting businesses and increasing tax bases.”

According to the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, 320,511 students were eligible to receive MAP grants in FY16. MAP grants are scholarships awarded by the state to college students who demonstrate significant financial need. Thomas Louis, a student from Illinois College in Jacksonville, is one of those eligible recipients. Louis transferred from the University of Kansas after realizing that he was unable to receive adequate financial aid there. “Quite simply, the MAP was the greatest factor for me to return to Illinois to further my education,” Louis said to the crowd.

Louis says there are perils in losing in-state talent to surrounding states that are recruiting students like himself because it deprives the state of its brightest minds. “I know I’m not alone in this struggle,” said Louis. “I don’t think we can stop incentivizing Illinois students to stay in-state.”

Sen. Pat McGuire, D-Joliet, is the chairperson of the Senate Higher Education Committee. McGuire emphasized his gratitude for the demonstrators who attended the rally. “For many of you, this is not your first trip to the Capitol to advocate for higher education,” said McGuire. “For that, your persistence is having a profound effect.”

McGuire then spoke to the audience about the bipartisan “grand bargain” Senate proposal, a package of 12 bills aimed to end the budget impasse. “One of those bills would send $1.1 billion to MAP Grant recipients, community colleges and our nine public universities,” McGuire said. “It will fund students and these institutions at the same level as the last budget. This means the state will invest in you and higher education in the state of Illinois.”

Tretter says that the coalition will continue to spread the word to fund higher education. “You’ll see a continued effort of events like this. There will probably be another rally in the spring,” said Tretter. “Certainly, we’re traveling around the state right now, trying to reach out to talk to business leaders. We’re doing this so they can understand that if they want to find future employees that are educated, if you devastate the higher education system, that doesn’t help out their businesses in the long run.”

Alex Camp is an editorial intern for Illinois Times. He is pursuing his master’s degree at University of Illinois Springfield. Contact him at intern@illinoistimes.com.

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