CHICAGO — A key source of state college financial assistance for needy students has exhausted its funds — the earliest it has ever run out of cash.
The state's Monetary Award Program exhausted its $371.3 million budget March 2, making it difficult for thousands of students hoping to secure a grant, officials said.
"This is the earliest we have exhausted funds," which are distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis to eligible students, said John Samuels, a spokesman for the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, which distributes the money.
In the past, the earliest MAP grants had run out of funds was March 19, Samuels said. The grants are awarded based on household size and income,
"This is why I encourage students and parents to fill out their FAFSA as early as possible to avoid this kind of situation," said Samuels, referring to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which is required to receive state and federal financial assistance.
"We processed $23 million on Feb. 28, which is a huge jump from the $6 million we typically did in a day," said Samuels.
Samuels said applications that were received on or after March 2 were put on a waiting list.
"If more funds become available we would award those monies to students on the list, but in the order we received their applications," he said.
Applications are time-stamped based on the day the application was started. So if a student began an application on Feb. 1 but did not complete it until March 3, the commission would count the application as being processed on Feb. 1, Samuels said.
The state commission had less money to work with this year: The $371.3 million it had for the 2013-2014 school year was about 4 percent less than than the $387 million it had for the 2012-2013 school year.
The total number of applications processed so far this year was not immediately available, but demand has been growing.
For the 2012-13 school year, the commission saw about a 9 percent increase in applications from the previous school year, from 774,000 to 841,000.
Of the 841,000 applications, some 370,000 were found eligible and 158,349 actually received a MAP grant.
Grants range from $300 to $4,968 for the school year, he said.
Student enrollment could be hurt if needy students cannot secure enough financial aid.
"A large percentage of our students receive financial aid, and without it many of them would be unable to return," said Glenn Meeks, vice president of finance and administration at Chicago State University.
Samuels said community college students typically apply for aid later than students at four-year colleges "so they're the ones usually affected the most when funds run short."
News of the early exhaustion of MAP money alarmed some students.
"I thought the deadline was in May to apply for financial aid," said Linda Adams-Jacobs, 18, who said she expects to complete her GED class at Kennedy-King College in May and planned to study to be a certified nurse assistant.
"If I can't get a MAP grant, I will have to see if I could borrow the money from my family," she said.
Jamar Dee, 23, said he, too, thought there was a May deadline.
"Based on what I heard, I was waiting to file my taxes before applying," said the senior communications major at CSU. "But if it's too late, then I guess I won't have any other choice but to take out a larger student loan."
Dee said he already owes $12,000.
"But, hey, I am graduating next semester so I can't stop now," he said.
Besides student loans, Pell Grants from the federal government are still available, Samuels said.
"That money is pretty much available to a student as long as they apply by June," he said.
Luckily for Pierre Jackson, a 20-year old Englewood resident, he completed his financial aid application two months ago.
"I wasn't aware the state ran out of money, but I always fill out my financial aid forms early anyway," said the art student at Kennedy-King College. "I guess that old saying is true, 'The early bird catches the worm.'"