Temperatures are on the rise as funds are sinking fast for college tuition.
Recently, I was put in charge of developing a faculty proposal for a new graduate program in our School of Communication. (A project that is keeping me up at nights…) Not only is the field of communication in a state of ‘digital’ shock — newspapers are bankrupt, advertising is in trouble, Hollywood is facing YouTube — but, just to make matters worse, student loans are on shaky ground. Sure, Arne Duncan has put more money into Pell grants, but, at the same time, banks and state budgets are tightening their reins for college tuition loans. The implications are dire in my own state of Illinois.
Illinois’s Monetary Award Program (MAP), the state’s largest financial aid program that funds lower-income college students (and many single parents) just had its budget slashed. MAP funds run out Dec. 31st, which means that 130,000 Illinois students will not receive funding dollars for the spring semester. At my university alone this means that 25% of the student body will lose money—about 2500 students. Over 50% of these MAP students are minority. 40% of the students are first generation college students. The average family income per year for these families is less than $40,000 (data provided by Loyola University Chicago’s Provost office).
Like many graduate students, I was both a parent and an enrolled student while completing my six years of graduate school. Over 11% of Pell grants  currently fund single parents going back to school. My own for-profit funder — Sallie Mae — also funds a high percentage of single parents. 15 years later, I am now a divorced parent trying to contemplate how to send my teenagers to college. But I have only just recently finished paying off my own student loan debts!
We all know that the private student loan market needs to be rethought , particularly since it has shortchanged minority and lower income recipients. But that student loan money needs to come from somewhere. Suddenly cutting off student funds without offering back up alternatives is destructive for students as well as for universities. Without those tuition dollars universities will be forced to fire staff and end contracts, and, at schools that are primarily tuition-driven, departments will close and tenured faculty will be lost.
This potential escalating panic is why my university and many others in Illinois are encouraging students to attend Student Assistance Commission meetings and “express their support” for the MAP program. Loyola Chicago’s Vice President of Public Affairs, Phil Hale, is directly urging students and faculty to write, call or visit their representative, both on campus and in Springfield, the state capital. He describes our university president, Father Michael Garanzini as having met recently with Governor Pat Quinn (Blagojevich’s replacement) in order to push for a reinstatement of funds. My university is engaged on this issue.
Universities understand how crucial every dollar is for most students. I did not come from a lower income background (and was not a single parent in grad school), but, like most students, I needed every dollar that I borrowed. Many graduate students (and writers for this blog) completed their degrees during their childbearing years. I’m sure that I do not speak alone when I argue for the importance of maintaining student loans and fellowship dollars for parents who are trying to finish school.