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Sixty-five NIU students rolled into Springfield on two buses Wednesday morning to protest potential cuts to the state’s Monetary Award Program (MAP) and address other issues impacting higher education.
For many of the students, the MAP grant is a matter of college survival.
“It’s hugely important to my education,” said Marc Belbis, an NIU Student Association senator who is also a MAP grant recipient. He said the MAP grant was instrumental to his being able to move on from community college and attend NIU.
The NIU students broke up into groups and met with a number of lawmakers, including Rep. Robert Pritchard (R-Hinckley), Sen. Christine Johnson (R-Shabbona), Rep. Richard Morthland (R-Cordova), Sen. Bill Brady (R-Bloomington), Sen. Sue Rezin (R-Morris) and Sen. Matt Murphy (R-Palatine).
Pritchard is the Republican spokesperson for the House Higher Education Committee. Johnson sits on the Senate Education Committee.
Pritchard, who represents the DeKalb area and has been a strong supporter of MAP funding, also recognized the group from the floor of the House of the Illinois General Assembly.
“Other legislators from both side of aisle were supportive of MAP grants,” said Belbis, a senior exercise science major from Chicago. “I think students should feel confident they’ll be able to go to school next semester.”
But he also said it’s important for students to continue to raise their voices.
“There are huge problems in Illinois right now,” he said. “I just want to warn students it’s not going to get much better. I believe families and students need to be much more vigilant in providing for their futures because the state isn’t going to do it.”
Natasha Jensen, a freshman political science major from Bureau, said she believes MAP grants have been stretched too thin. She doesn’t understand why her older brother received the financial aid during his college years but she doesn’t.
“My parents make less than they did just a few years ago,” she said. “I don’t get it. That doesn’t make sense to me. I’ll be paying off loans for a long time, and the fact I want to go to law school doesn’t help.”
Jensen said she was excited to interact in Springfield with lawmakers, particularly those from her home district. “Just being there and voicing our concerns was important, but I think we need to do more. I really want to get involved in this,” she said.
NIU’s Student Association organized Wednesday’s March on Springfield Lobby Day.
“It was good to see the young people, who are sometimes underrepresented, down there and in the debate,” said Austin Quick, speaker of the SA Senate.
Quick said students from other colleges also were lobbying in Springfield, but NIU easily had the largest presence.
“Students were coming down here to fight, and they were ready to fight,” Quick added. “They were so excited when we got back and thanked us for the opportunity.”
More than 6,200 NIU students – more than one in three undergraduate students – rely on MAP grant funding to help pay for their education. The average MAP recipient at NIU receives about $3,625 a year.
“It was helpful for legislators to visit with the students and hear their personal stories about the value of MAP,” Rep. Pritchard said. “Students also benefited by learning how their voice can influence public policy.”
Administered by the Illinois Student Assistance Commission (ISAC), MAP grants provide assistance to eligible students demonstrating financial need. Each year the amount of a student award depends on a number of factors, including program funding levels, which are determined by state legislators and the governor when they approve the annual state budget.
ISAC has warned students to brace for possible MAP grant shortfalls.
“Our students are asking honest and challenging questions,” said Jill Zambito, NIU’s director of Student Involvement and Leadership Development who accompanied students to Springfield. “This is personal. This is their education—and their future. We are all learning from this experience.”