Illinois paid lottery winners before college students

illinois grant money
Illinois' budget stalemate has tied up funds for state grants awarded to low-income college students.

Some of Illinois' neediest college students are falling victim to the state's budget mess.

Thousands returned to school after winter break confused and worried about having to come up with a couple thousand dollars more for tuition this semester.

The money for grants awarded to low-income students is tied up while Democratic lawmakers continue to hash it out with a Republican governor over the state's financial mess -- seven months after a budget was due. Without it, Illinois cannot pay out funds for most state programs.

Don't worry about lottery winners, though. The state found a way to push through the money for them while the budget battle continues.

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Jacqueline Suriano was counting on her state grant to pay tuition at the Illinois Institute of Technology. She already works two jobs on campus to cover the $3,000 she pays out-of-pocket each semester -- all while maintaining a 4.0 GPA. Now she owes an additional $2,360 to cover the cost of the missing grant.

illinois grant money jacqueline
Jacqueline Suriano is a student at Illinois Institute of Technology.

In anticipation of the extra cost, Suriano picked up odd jobs over winter break, and skipped buying Christmas presents for friends and family. But she's still in the hole.

Meanwhile, lawmakers released some funds in December for programs like the statewide 9-1-1 service, firefighter and police trainings, and pension funds. The grant program, which could cost less than $380 million, didn't make the list. But $1 billion -- with a "B" -- was appropriated to pay the lucky winners who hit the jackpot.

Unlike the lottery funds, which are fixed because they are raised through ticket sales and not through tax revenue, the grant funds are voted on by the state and can change from year to year. The grant program awarded an average of $2,800 to 140,000 students for the previous school year.

Most colleges notified students in December, warning them that they might be on the hook if the state doesn't fund the grants. But many students still aren't sure when they'll have to come up with the money.

"It feels awkward, but we encouraged students to proceed as usual with the understanding that we could work something out. What that might mean depends on each student's financial situation, but for some, it's kind of like trying to ring extra drops out of a dry towel," said Mike Gosz, the VP of Enrollment at Illinois Tech.

It could be setting up a payment plan, taking out another loan, or getting a work-study job on campus.

"These families don't have the resources to just come up with this money," Gosz said.

Related: New York will pay your student loan bills for two years

About 26 colleges said that students would not be able to enroll in the next semester or graduate if they have an unpaid balance due to the missing grant, according to an anonymous survey conducted earlier this month by the Illinois Student Assistance Commission.

That's the case at Illinois Tech, a small private school in Chicago, and Lake Land Community College in Mattoon. Both say they would reimburse students who paid for the cost of the grant if and when the state finally appropriates the funds

Suriano won't be able to sign up for classes for the fall semester when registration opens in April if she hasn't paid her full bill yet. She said the school is allowing her to set up a payment plan, splitting the cost into three monthly installments, the first of which is due January 25.

illinois grant money valerie
Valerie Madero will graduate this spring with her nursing degree.

There's a lot of uncertainty for students, even at schools that aren't requiring them to pay anything extra yet.

"I just know that the policy at my institution is that if you haven't paid by graduation, you don't get your degree," said Valerie Madero, who is on track to complete her nursing degree this spring at the Resurrection University. The school did not respond to a request for comment about this story.

Madero applied for seven scholarships over winter break just in case. She received one that will cover just one semester of her grant, and she may have to take out a private loan for the remaining cost. Students are discouraged from getting jobs during their last semester so they can work three, 12-hour clinical shifts each week.

illinois grant money email
Madero, a senior, received this email from her school in December.

Colleges are in a tough spot. For the fall semester, most essentially fronted the money for the grants that never came in. But some can't afford to do that any longer. It's especially hard for public Illinois colleges and universities, which rely on state funds each year to cover the cost of a big chunk of their operating budget.

In a normal year, Lake Land Community College has usually received enough money from the state to fund about 30% of its operations by now, President Josh Bullock told CNN Money.

Related: How one grad cut her student loan debt by $20,000

This year, it's received zero. Spending cuts have been made and new projects, building maintenance, and new hires are on hold. Layoffs could be on the horizon if state funds don't come.

"We just don't know what's going to happen. We've heard speculation from some lawmakers that it could be November, after the general election, when a final budget gets passed," Bullock said.

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