SJR Column: Map Grants, February 2016

Almost 144 years ago when young Abraham Lincoln was seeking his first seat in the Illinois General Assembly, he composed a message “To the people of Sangamo County” communicating his position on legislative priorities. It was published in the local Sangamo Journal – now the State Journal Register. Lincoln’s message read, in part: “Upon the subject of education, I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in.”

I can’t help wondering today (just a few days after Lincoln’s birthday) what Mr. Lincoln would think about his modern-day political successors and the budget impasse that has brought on such unprecedented challenges for higher education in our state.

As Chancellor of the Springfield campus of the University of Illinois, I’m addressing those challenges each day at the same time I’m thankful that robust enrollment growth, deeply committed faculty and staff, and an unrelenting focus on campus priorities is enabling our continued positive momentum.

But while I worry about long-term damage to Illinois colleges and universities, what keeps me up at night is often thinking about students, especially first generation students who depend heavily on the Illinois MAP grant – the Monetary Assistance Program caught in the current budget impasse. Let me introduce you to a few of them:

Gary Nutt is a Springfield Southeast High graduate and now a UIS freshman. Gary’s mother, a single mom, died during his senior year of high school after a long battle with lung cancer. There was no money for college; but thanks, in part, to good grades and the AVID program, a nonprofit that helps talented students navigate college admissions, Gary was admitted to UIS and awarded a financial aid package including a scholarship, the federal Pell grant and an Illinois MAP grant that made UIS possible.

Besides being a fulltime student, Gary works 30 hours per week at a local restaurant and keeps a close eye on his little brother – a student at Lanphier High School. “My mom was a medical professional who worked in home health care. I saw what she was all about,” he says, “and I’m going to become a nurse so that I can do what she did.”

Duane and Deja Willingham are two-thirds of triplets from the south suburbs of Chicago – both juniors at UIS.  Like Gary, Deja and Duane come from a single parent household.

“Our mom made it clear when we were in 8th grade that she couldn’t afford to pay for college; but she encouraged us to do well and ‘be marketable’.”

They certainly followed mom’s instructions!

Deja is a member of the prestigious UIS CAP Scholars Honors Program and receives the Presidential Scholarship, as well as MAP and Pell grants. She also helps pay her way by working as a resident assistant and at other campus jobs. “I book myself hour by hour on a daily basis,” she says, “but I always reserve time for volunteering as a Big Sister and for my work with student organizations.” Deja plans to become a high school teacher.

Deja’s brother, Duane, is also a strong student who receives a music scholarship (he plays trombone), along with MAP and Pell grants. Duane has worked several jobs on campus, including orientation leader and intramural sports supervisor. He is also active in the campus Christian Youth Fellowship organization, where he is a volunteer preacher.

No graduate will be prouder to shake my hand on the commencement stage this May than Jamie Anderson. Jamie grew up in Stillman Valley, a village south of Rockford. A foster child for most of her childhood, she knew she had to work hard in high school in order to attend college and pursue her dream to become a social worker.

“I worked at a grocery store throughout high school to save money for college,” reports Jamie, “and I work two jobs now. It’s unbelievable what a great experience I’ve had at UIS; but I wouldn’t be here without the MAP and Pell grants.”

UIS students Gary, Duane, Deja and Jamie are just four of the nearly 700 UIS students for whom the state-supported Monetary Assistance Program (MAP) is essential for access to a college education and the promise of a brighter future. They are among 128,000 needy Illinois students whose MAP funding for this year is still held hostage in the current budget crisis.

In 1832, Lincoln viewed education as, “… the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in.” For Gary, Duane, Deja and Jamie – and for the future of Illinois – I encourage Lincoln’s successors to make education a “most important subject” again today.

Chancellor Susan J. Koch