Finance

As Illinois Budget Impasse Ends, So Does a ‘Nightmare of Total Uncertainty’ for Its Public Colleges

July 06, 2017

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The state has its first budget in more than two years, and campus leaders are excited to move forward, even though not all the long-term effects of the budget crisis are yet known.

College officials in Illinois breathed a sigh of relief on Thursday as a historic state-budget standoff came to a dramatic end. By a margin of three votes, the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives successfully overrode Gov. Bruce V. Rauner’s veto of a spending bill for the 2018 fiscal year, giving Illinois its first budget in more than two years.

What remains to be seen is the long-term damage colleges might face, in terms of institutional problems and reputational harm.

The stalemate — which pitted Democratic lawmakers against Mr. Rauner, a Republican who refused to approve a budget that didn’t include significant spending cuts — has hit higher education hard. For one nearly 10-month period, colleges didn’t receive any state money. Stopgap measures provided some relief, but nothing near the level of state funding colleges were used to receiving.

That forced institutions to cobble together cash reserves, lay off faculty and staff members, mandate furloughs, freeze hiring, and limit university-sponsored travel.

Now that there is a budget, campus leaders say they’re excited to move forward from months of uncertainty and plan for the future. For many colleges, however, a lot of damage has already been done.

Chicago State University was on the brink of shutting down in the spring of 2016 and enrolled just 86 freshmen last fall. Eastern Illinois University also faced rumors of closure and has lost hundreds of employees through layoffs and attrition.

Western Illinois University has laid off more than 100 faculty and staff members, including two newly tenured professors. Most community colleges made cuts to academic programs and were unable to continue footing the bill for a low-income grant program, known as MAP, that’s usually funded by the state, forcing some students to drop out.

What remains to be seen is the long-term damage Illinois’s colleges might face, both in terms of institutional problems and reputational harm across the state and nation.

The Chronicle spoke with three college presidents — one from a large university system, one from a regional college, and one from a community college — to get a sense of the possible lasting effects of the budget crisis.

University of Illinois System

The University of Illinois system’s three universities have weathered the budget storm better than most of the state’s public colleges.

Two of the institutions — the Urbana-Champaign flagship and the University of Illinois at Chicago — are research universities with large student populations and a diverse set of funding sources. Thirteen to 14 percent of the system’s operating budget comes from the state, a share noticeably less than that of most regional campuses and community colleges. (The system’s 2018 state funding will be 10 percent less than it was in 2015, the last year Illinois had a permanent budget.)

The system is down about 400 full-time-equivalent administrative staff, "which has stretched us relatively thin," says Timothy L. Killeen, the system’s president. But no faculty members have been laid off, and in-state tuition has remained flat.

All three universities have strategically increased enrollment over the last couple of years, Mr. Killeen says. Those efforts came partly in response to financial concerns, he says, though the system’s ultimate goal is ensuring that more Illinois high-school students stay in state for college.

"It does feel like we’ve had our hands pinned behind us," he says. "But we’ve done a lot in the meantime to strengthen ourselves."

He remains concerned about faculty recruitment and retention. Seventy professors left the flagship campus during the 2015-16 academic year, a 59 percent increase from the previous year. Now, with a budget on the books, Mr. Killeen says, "we’re going to go into recruitment overdrive mode."

The legislative dysfunction has prompted the university system to reflect deeply on its relationship with the state, he says. For the past 18 months, the president has been pushing a "compact" between the system and the legislature, which he hopes will become a model for university-legislative relations.

“We are the solution, not the problem.”

Lawmakers would agree to guarantee state-funding levels for the University of Illinois over a five-year period, as well as to create a faculty recruitment and retention fund and scale back a handful of regulations. In exchange, the three campuses would agree to meet performance goals in areas like student retention and graduation, to limit future tuition increases, and to admit more in-state and underrepresented minority students. Mr. Killeen says the bill has about two-dozen sponsors, both Republicans and Democrats.

His message to lawmakers is simple: If the state wants to get back on track economically, it can’t leave its colleges floundering in another two-year financial drought. "We are the solution," he says, "not the problem."

Governors State University

Back in May, the Governors State Board of Trustees gave Elaine P. Maimon, the president, the authority to shutter one of the university’s four academic colleges if no more state funding came through this summer. "Thank goodness we don’t have to do that," Ms. Maimon says.

Since 2015, her institution has had to cut 62 positions and eliminate 35 academic programs. In March, the board approved a 15 percent tuition hike. And those changes are here to stay, she says, even though there’s now a permanent budget.

Though the new state budget includes a 10-percent cut to the funding the public-regional university received in 2015, Ms. Maimon says she’s just glad to be "out of this nightmare of total uncertainty."

In the 2016 fiscal year, her campus received 30 percent of its 2015 state funding. In 2017, it received about 50 percent of it. (The new budget gives colleges some additional money to help close the 2017 gap.)

“Our biggest competitor is 'nowhere.' We didn't want our students to give up and just decide, 'Higher education is not for me.'”

Instead of being able to think creatively about how to improve student outcomes, "so much of our energy had to be siphoned off on kind of basic survival," she says. "Everybody loses when that happens."

Despite tight finances, Governors State made sure that its students wouldn’t be on the hook for paying back their MAP grants, which was the case at some Illinois colleges. About one-third of the university’s undergraduate students are eligible for the aid, and many of them are also first-generation students.

"With our students, our biggest competitor is ‘nowhere,’" Ms. Maimon says. "We didn’t want our students to give up and just decide, ‘Higher education is not for me.’" Their efforts have paid off, she says: Governors State’s enrollment has held steady during the impasse.

She has particularly high praise for the role student leaders have played recently in advocating for the university. Justin Smith, the student senate president, actually wrote a song for the occasion titled "If We Had a Budget," which a student performed at a campus forum, she says.

"The way our student government and student senate have organized in a civil way to tell the story of the importance of higher education has just been amazing," she says.

Kankakee Community College

The list of casualties from the impasse at Kankakee Community College is long: The child-care center. A small-business development center. The campus public radio station. Several adult-education facilities. Eighty faculty and staff positions.

The college was used to receiving about 30 percent of its operating budget from the state, says John Avendano, Kankakee’s president.

Rainy-day reserves helped alleviate some of the pain, but those funds "weren’t there for typhoons," says Mr. Avendano, who is also president of the Illinois Council of Community College Presidents. Plus, when MAP grant funding didn’t come through right away, that meant lost tuition dollars too, he adds.

“Community colleges are not going anywhere. We're going to be here. We're resilient.'”

Kankakee couldn’t pay for the MAP grants out of pocket, he says. Its foundation filled some of the gaps for needy students. But the college’s enrollment has dropped significantly since 2015, and other students are taking fewer credit hours, he says, suggesting that the loss of financial aid and the budget uncertainty affected many students. Kankakee’s enrollment has decreased by more than one-third since 2012.

"You don’t want to start something if you don’t know whether you can finish it," Mr. Avendano says.

Even with a new budget, the college won’t be reopening shuttered centers or adding back staff positions at this point, the president says.

Public colleges must adapt to the reality that they will need to operate differently in the future and rely less on the state, Mr. Avendano says. Campus consolidations and closures could be on the horizon in the next five to seven years, he says.

Still, he stresses that he’s grateful to lawmakers for ending the impasse and that he’s bullish on the future of public higher education in Illinois. "Community colleges are not going anywhere," he says. "We’re going to be here. We’re resilient."

Sarah Brown writes about a range of higher-education topics, including sexual assault, race on campus, and Greek life. Follow her on Twitter @Brown_e_Points, or email her at sarah.brown@chronicle.com.