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On December 2, Illinois advocates, led by Women Employed, a member of National Skills Coalition, scored a huge victory for low-income students. Despite the pronounced state budget deficit, advocates fought for and won the reinstatement of $33.5 million back into the Monetary Award Program (MAP) for the current academic year. The additional funding covers both the initial cut of $17.2 million under the Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 state budget passed in May and raises the program’s overall appropriation by $20 million from previous years.
MAP is Illinois’ signature financial aid program, and is often heralded as a model for other states because it is open to non-traditional students, including working adults and those attending less-than-half time. Eligible participants must attend approved Illinois colleges and demonstrate financial need, based on the information provided on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The program is often seen as the essential glue for helping students enroll and finish postsecondary education programs because it fills in the gaps left behind after federal financial aid has been used.
Women Employed used a powerful mix of organizing and advocacy strategies to bring MAP funding to fruition. Mobilizing students who depend on MAP and getting them in front of policymakers was a vital component. The organization’s Student Advocates for Success (SAS) program provides community college students with tools and resources to advocate on their own behalf for financial aid funding. The students wrote hundreds of letters to legislators, sharing how cuts to MAP would force them to drop out or take fewer classes. Face to face meetings with lawmakers at their district offices were also crucial. And the use of new media in conjunction with traditional action alerts also kept the pressure on legislators to reverse the cuts. Action alerts and emails sent by constituents to legislators included a link to a video of students who talked about the impacts of the cuts.
“Ultimately, it was these student voices that inspired legislators into action. Not just any students carried the message. Women Employed specifically enlisted students who were in school, benefiting from MAP, and in danger of dropping out or cutting back if their financial awards were curtailed. This strategy ultimately got lawmakers to see past the budget numbers to the education aspirations of these students,” remarked Sarah Labadie, Policy Associate for the organization.
An urgent message, a variety of strategies to get the message out, and compelling messengers saved MAP, and most likely, these students’ futures too.