IL budget problem hits colleges & college students

Colleges in Illinois are using up emergency reserves to help pay for the education of poorer students, because the state of Illinois, crippled by a budget feud between Gov Bruce Rauner, a Republican, and the Democratic-controlled General Assembly, hasn’t paid colleges in about seven months, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports.

A dorm in Illinois (Glenn Nagel / iStock)

Larger schools with alumni networks, research-driven grants, and philanthropic foundation support, including the University of Illinois and Illinois State University, have been able to weather the budget battle, with only small disruptions, the Chicago Tribune reported in November. We’ve been hearing that construction projects are postponed, positions unfilled, and technology upgrades delayed during the impasse at these universities.

But at smaller schools, especially at community colleges, the impasse has a much more profound impact: students can’t pay to complete their degrees, professors are being laid off, and college officials are leaking or at least dispelling rumors that they may close their doors soon if the state continues a cycle of non-payment much longer.

At Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, Chief Financial Officer Alan Phillips told the Tribune it will be “very difficult” to make it through a full year without state money. At Eastern Illinois University President David M Glassman issued a statement on Facebook, saying this:

It has come to my attention that you may again be hearing that our ability to stay open for the spring semester is in question. This is not true. This rumor re-surfaced on social media, possibly because of a recent Chicago Tribune story in which a statement I made during a state budget hearing was reported out of context. The statement was designed to emphasize the seriousness of the budget situation for Eastern Illinois University and higher education in Illinois.

What is true: EIU is committed to providing our students—during the spring semester and beyond—the same award-winning education we always have. EIU is proudly ranked the top regional public comprehensive university in Illinois by U.S. News and World Report, and we will continue to provide excellence in higher education to our outstanding students.

I assure you EIU will continue to operate throughout this academic year, even given the unprecedented budgetary impasse occurring within our state government.

Things have become ugly, as they often do in Illinois. The Chronicle quoted Tom Wogan, a spokesman for Chicago State University, as saying this week that the institution had exhausted its reserves and wouldn’t be able to make payroll come March without the state’s help.

So the Chronicle contacted the governor’s office, which sent along a copy of a memorandum, written on Wednesday by Mr Rauner’s chief legislative aide, as delivered to the legislature, stating that “recent reports of wasteful spending, corruption, and low academic performance at Chicago State are plentiful.”

Lots of states have budget impasses. A famous one came recently in Pennsylvania, causing colleges there to raise red flags about students who depend on state money to complete their education. But no one expected the budget impasse in Illinois to go as far as it has.

“We’re facing a situation over the coming weeks,” the Chronicle quoted Randy J Dunn, president of the Southern Illinois University system, as saying. At SIU, a new scholarship will target students in coal mining communities, but a few “higher-education institutions may just not be financially viable and able to last through the spring semester.” He said some regional colleges were “working intently to find support for a short-term borrowing plan.”

That borrowing, which is necessary if universities are to fulfill their mission, is digging a deeper hole the longer it continues. The budget will eventually be passed, and university funds will be replenished, but I wonder, how long will it take them to dig out of that hole? And how many students will have abandoned the pursuit of the college education they wanted because the state made it unreasonably difficult for them to pay for it?

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.