New grant options offer students financial relief

By Marc Ruopp

With tuition rising steadily at the University, among other schools across the country, the cost of a collegiate education is quickly becoming unaffordable for many families.

In fact, the average tuition for undergraduates attending four-year public universities jumped 10.5 percent this year. That raised the nationwide average price of attendance, including room, board and fees, up $824 to $11,354, according to CNNMoney.com. The University’s tuition is slightly below the national average. The cost for a new student during the 2006-07 academic year ranges from $7,708 at the base rate to $11,170 for students in Business, Engineering, Chemistry and Life Sciences.

As higher education becomes increasingly expensive, many lower and middle-income families are looking for alternative ways to fund their children’s academic career.

One relatively new option is the Monetary Award Program (MAP) Plus Grant, which was signed into law on July 20, 2006. This award, a type of “gift aid” that does not require repayment, can be used to help cover the costs of tuition and mandatory fees.

To be eligible for this grant, the student also must be a U.S. citizen, resident of Illinois and currently enrolled in a MAP-accredited academic institution. The University is MAP-accredited. Also, those interested must have submitted a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for the 2006-07 academic year.

The award is available to families who did not receive a MAP grant and whose adjusted gross incomes are less than $200,000 in the applicable tax year, according to collegezone.com, the official website of the Illinois Student Assistance Commission. The total available award amount is $500.

Along with the MAP Plus grant, two other newly created grants offer an additional option to reduce the cost of an undergraduate degree.

The Academic Competitiveness Grant (ACG) and National Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent Grant (SMART) are both new, federally-funded options to assist students and their families. Both are need-based and only available to full-time students who also qualify for the Federal Pell Grant.

The ACG is an award available to students who have completed a “rigorous secondary school program,” as defined by the Secretary of Education. Available awards are $750 for freshmen and $1,300 for sophomores. Juniors, seniors and graduate students are not eligible for this program.

The National SMART Grant is offered to juniors and seniors majoring in an area of study related to science, mathematics, technology or foreign language. Eligible students receive $4,000 each year but must maintain a 3.0 GPA while collecting the award.

This is the first time, at the federal level, there has been a blend of need-based and merit-based grant funding offered, said Dan Mann, director of Student Financial Aid at the University.

However, there is still a large gap between those assisted by the two new grants and the 4,600 students currently aided by the Pell Grant at the University. Currently, 1,000 students are receiving aid from the ACG program and only 250 for the SMART grant.

“It’s at least a step in the right direction,” Mann said. “We would like to see an increase in the maximum amount of awards available for all Pell Grant recipients.”