As Illinois enters its third month without a budget, college student advocates want state funds freed up for the Monetary Award Program (MAP).
The need-based grant program helps low-income Illinois students pay for tuition at more than 130 colleges and universities in the state.
With college students gearing up for fall classes, MAP grants for up to 130,000 eligible applicants this school year are entangled in the Springfield budget standoff.
As a result, there is "a lot of confusion among students and a lot of uncertainly as to whether they'll be able to afford to return to school this fall," said Eve Rips, Midwest director at Young Invincibles, a Millennial research and advocacy group.
"These students who aren't getting MAP funding are all truly in a place where paying for college is going to be very difficult," she added.
Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic lawmakers remains at odds over a budget for the 2016 fiscal year, which began July 1.
Last month, the Democrat-controlled Illinois Senate approved legislation that would authorize over $373 million in MAP spending, the same funding level recommended in Rauner's 2016 budget proposal. The Illinois House, also dominated by Democrats, could take up the MAP funding bill, SB 2043, this week.
The $373 million in proposed MAP funding is $24 million less than what Democrats included in their 2016 budget. Rauner vetoed most of that Democratic spending plan, including all higher education appropriations, citing its nearly $4 billion shortfall.
After SB 2043 was sent to the state's lower legislative chamber, Voices for Illinois Children and Women Employed released an analysis last week showing the number of MAP applicants in each Illinois House district during the 2015 fiscal year.
"Every lawmaker has hundreds, if not thousands, of constituents whose dreams to pursue higher education will be destroyed as a result of the state's failure to pass a fully funded, year-long budget that protects vital services for children and families," Emily Miller, director of policy and advocacy at Voices for Illinois Children, said in a statement accompanying the analysis. "With MAP, more Illinois students can afford college, increasing their chances of finding good-paying jobs and strengthening our economy by creating a stronger workforce. Lawmakers and the governor must increase revenue so that Illinois can continue to invest in both families and a working economy."
For his part, Rauner has threatened to veto the MAP funding measure if he receives it.
In a letter sent last month to state senators, Rauner's Deputy Chief of Staff Richard Goldberg wrote, "(A)bsent proposals from the majority to reduce spending and balance the budget, SB 2043 would simply pave the way for more debt or higher taxes -- and Governor Rauner would veto it."
"Rather than rushing taxpayers toward an unbalanced budget by passing SB 2043, let's rush toward negotiations to achieve bipartisan consensus on the governor's Turnaround Agenda and a balanced budget," the letter added.
But others are warning against further delay in funding the college assistance program.
"We urge the governor not to play political games with our vital education funding," said College Democrats of Illinois President Kevin Cheng. "Tens of thousands of students across Illinois rely on MAP grants to pursue their dreams and better their communities through education. Students have enough stress with classes starting up and exams on the horizon. MAP grant funding should not and does not have to be another source of worry."
In stressing MAP's importance for college students, Rips noted that Illinois public universities have the fifth highest tuition of any state in the country.
"The MAP program has been a real national leader in providing state support to help students with tuition, and that's been extremely important, given our very high public tuition costs," she said. "Without the need-based program, we're going to see a really tremendous number of students being unable to afford college, potentially dropping out, and that's a big problem."