PEORIA — A group of Bradley University students headed to the state Capitol on Wednesday morning to bring a message to Peoria-area legislators:

State funds to help needy college students can be the make-or-break funds for keeping kids in school and helping them get a degree.

The seven students who met with Reps. Mike Unes, Ryan Spain and Jehan Gordon-Booth and Sens. Chuck Weaver and Dave Koehler were asking members of the Legislature to restore funding for Monetary Assistance Program grants, which have been caught up in the ongoing state budget imbroglio.

Much of the debate has centered around how the state can fund several hundred million dollars for the program in the beleaguered general fund budget.

More than 1,100 of Bradley's nearly 5,000 students receive the grants, which average about $4,400 annually.

"Without that amount of money, I don't think I'd be able to go another semester of college," said Victoria Magna, a junior studying civil engineering.

She already works 25-plus hours on top of her course load to cover her expenses and is maxed out on her federally available student loans, and says that she wants to stay in Illinois after graduation to work in construction management.

Some funds were authorized in last year's stopgap budget to cover the shortfall, and Bradley has been among the schools fronting money to recipients in order to keep them in classes, to the tune of nearly $5 million for the current school year.

Many of the recipients are minorities — nearly 40 percent of those receiving the aid at Bradley — and a significant number are first-generation college students.

Gerry Regep, a junior studying political science and philosophy, is the first of his family to attend college and said assistance like the MAP grant "has been one of the biggest factors in whether or not I attend college."

He works two campus jobs, and his mother took a second job at home in suburban LaGrange to help him meet the costs not covered by MAP or scholarships.

"I'm just happy to pay rent at the end of the month and be able to buy groceries for the week. I'm happy when my mom can tell me back home that she had a day off to rest," Regep said. "Any sort of financial aid that's ... funded is a huge contributor."

Stories like those, said the faculty organizer of the trip, Institute for Principled Leadership in Public Service executive director Brad McMillan, help show the human faces of the program to lawmakers.

"The students do the best job of telling their stories," he said.

"It's great to see the students themselves be passionate and be the strongest advocates for this program."

Chris Kaergard can be reached at ckaergard@pjstar.com and 686-3255. Follow him at twitter.com/ChrisKaergard.