by Mary Ellen Flannery
It has been six months since Illinois colleges and universities were cut off from state funds, and the quality of higher education — as well as poor students’ access to it — is suffering.
Low-income college students are losing their scholarships, faculty and staff are losing their jobs, and university officials are talking about closing their doors for good. “It’s obvious the quote ‘education’ governor doesn’t care about education or about governing,” said Beverly Stewart, an adjunct professor at Roosevelt University and higher-education chair of the Illinois Education Association (IEA) board of directors.
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The problem is that Illinois community colleges and state universities normally receive millions of dollars from the state to operate, but Illinois has been operating without a budget since July 1. The state budget proposed by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner was designed to break the state’s unions and also to drastically cut funding for higher education, and state lawmakers have refused to go along.
“The governor’s view is to kill unions. The other view is to invest in people, in this case, men and women who want to do more in their lives and for the state by getting certificates and degrees,” said Sen. Pat McGuire, chairman of the state Senate higher education panel, to the Chicago Tribune.
IEA members are urging state lawmakers to pass emergency funding, at least to cover the state’s Monetary Award Program (MAP), which helped 136,000 low-income students pay for college last year. Without that money, tens of thousands of Illinois students may be forced to drop out — with no degree and no job, but plenty of debt.
With those students in mind, IEA members and their allies at the University Professionals of Illinois have collected more than 10,000 postcards to Gov. Rauner, asking him to “fund our future,” to stop playing games with Illinois higher education, and to restore poor students’ access to college.
“People in Springfield don’t realize they’re touching so many lives by stopping this funding,” said Rainn Darring, a Northern Illinois University senior who told the Daily Chronicle that he might not graduate if he can’t get the money to pay for his last semester’s classes.
Poor students cut off from education
Rauner’s proposed budget would cut Illinois higher education funding by 33 percent — but the ongoing budget battle has cut it by 100 percent, notes Michael McDermott, IEA higher education program director. That includes operating funds for institutions, but also the $373 million for MAP grants.
This past fall, when the budget crisis was just a few months old, most of the state’s colleges and universities had enough cash in reserve to cover the missing MAP funding for students. But now that the budget crisis is dragging into 2016, their rainy-day funds are going dry.
About half of the Illinois colleges and universities that used their own money in the fall — about $168 million altogether — to cover missing MAP grants will not be able to do the same thing for their students this spring, according to a survey by the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, which the Associated Press reported last week. In all, the survey showed that 31 institutions would continue to cover the missing MAP funds for students; 41 would not, and about a dozen were undecided.
Only one out of five community colleges, which rely heavily on state funding to operate, said they could continue carrying the burden. Last year, about 42,000 community college students in Illinois received MAP grants.
Richland Community College in Decatur, where 14 percent of the budget is supposed to come from the state, is one institution that won’t be able to continue covering MAP grants. Richland student Wade Sutman told WCIA that he would face some tough choices about continuing his education to become an electrician. “[Lawmakers] need to … quit dragging their feet. It’s about time to have it done,” he said.
Faculty and staff layoffs, and other program cuts
Although colleges have been wary to cry about their fiscal problems during admissions season, it’s clear that they’re nearing a breaking point. Recently, Eastern Illinois University (EIU) president David Glassman emailed faculty and students to say that “rumors” the institution would close its doors were untrue. (In October, Glassman told state Senators that without a state budget, EIU would be in danger of shutting down in the spring. “I don’t know a date or month. But I can say that we would be somewhere in the spring semester,” Glassman said. Since then, he has said his words were taken “out of context.”)
Nonetheless, to reduce spending, EIU has cut more than 150 staff positions, and laid off at least 26 faculty members, while at Western Illinois University, more than 50 employees have accepted an early retirement package and about 50 more faculty members will be laid off. And that’s not all: at Rock Valley College, 30 employees who work mostly in student support services are getting pink slips, while 11 more at Richland Community College have been let go, and two programs, including adult education, have been closed.
At the same time, six universities have had their bond rating downgraded by Moody’s Investors, which means it will cost them more if they seek to borrow money during the impasse.
“There is going to come a point where one of us in the statewide system is not going to make it, and shame on the state, shame on the players, shame on all of us if we get to the point where that happens,” Southern Illinois University’s President Randy Dunn said in a September statement.