NORMAL — The silver lining for people planning to attend college this fall is that federal Pell Grants are available to students in need.

The dark clouds include the earliest-ever suspension of grants from the state’s Monetary Award Program and a possible doubling of interest rates on federally subsidized Stafford student loans.

Meanwhile, many schools, including Illinois State University, have not yet set their tuition and fees for incoming freshman.

Few observers, if any, expect tuition levels to go down.

But those in the financial aid arena urge students to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

Despite its name, the FAFSA is used for more than just federal aid, such as Pell Grants and work-study programs. Many institutional and private scholarships rely on the FAFSA to determine financial aid, said Jana Albrecht, ISU’s director of financial aid.

Unfortunately, anyone who filled out a FAFSA after March 1 won’t be awarded a state MAP grant — at least for now.

The Illinois Student Assistance Commission suspended awarding of MAP grants based on estimates of when the money will run out, said spokesman John Samuels.

Even the amount of money is an estimate because the state’s fiscal year 2014 budget hasn’t been approved.

The March 1 cutoff was based on several factors, including an estimated MAP budget of $350 million — $21 million less than the current year, Samuels said. That’s about 2½ weeks earlier than last year.

But people who filed after March 1 might still be in luck.

Once the state knows how many of those who were awarded grants actually enroll, whether they go to community colleges or four-year schools and the number of credit hours they take, money could be freed for applicants who filed after March 1, Samuels said.

Those who didn’t receive state MAP grants might still receive federal Pell Grants. Nearly 94 percent of students eligible for MAP are also eligible for Pell, according to ISAC.

Many of those who didn’t receive a MAP grant will have to take out larger loans, said Albrecht.

But, if Congress doesn’t act, the rate for subsidized loans will double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent.

That almost happened last year, but a one-year deal was worked out. It expires July 1.

Albrecht said, “I really feel like they will do something.”

A bill introduced a U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., would permanently cap the rate at 3.4 percent. Others also have expressed support for keeping the rate at 3.4 percent — but none has said where they would get the estimated $6 billion to pay for that.

In letters going out to new students, outlining loans and other financial aid, “we give them what the current rates are and are very clear that we can’t guarantee that’s what it will be,” Albrecht said.

Students have the opportunity to decline the loan, but Albrecht said, “A lot of the students, they really don’t have another option.”

If the rate goes up to 6.8 percent, incoming freshmen would pay about $5,000 more in interest for the same student loans than their older siblings have paid.

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As always. If you're not on welfare you can't get any help for school!

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