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Illinois colleges looking at a long recovery from Gov. Rauner

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By Mary Ellen Flannery

For more than two years, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner held hostage the state’s public colleges and universities with his refusal to pass a state budget that invests in public education, or any budget at all.

As a result, with zero state funds since 2015, including much-needed grants for low-income college students, Illinois institutions have seen students leaving for other states or staying home, shuttered programs and canceled classes, and thousands of faculty and staff jobs lost. “We eat and starve on your decision,” Illinois State University senior Tia Dunlap told state lawmakers, who last month were weighing an end to the budget stalemate.

Finally, in July, under intense pressure from faculty, staff and students, Illinois state lawmakers narrowly overrode Rauner’s veto to pass a state budget. Student and faculty are relieved, they say. But it is not all good news: The new budget provides funding for higher education at a level that is 10 percent less than in 2015. It does provide $36 million more for the Monetary Award Program, known as “MAP grants” for low-income students.

Many Illinois students feel betrayed by Rauner and the lawmakers who enabled his refusal to fund higher education.

Over the past two years, at Chicago State University, 300 employees—a third of its staff—have been laid off, and student enrollment has fallen from more than 7,300 in 2010 to less than 3,600. In the fall of 2016, only 86 freshman enrolled. At Eastern Illinois University, more than 400 jobs have been cut. At Northeastern Illinois, nearly 200 jobs have been eliminated, and classes were canceled for several days this spring.

Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE) is “hemorrhaging” faculty, testified Kim Archer, president of the NEA-affiliated faculty union at SIUE, to state lawmakers last month. The lack of a budget has meant that health insurance provider reimbursements are not being made to faculty and staff, she said, and those employees could no longer rely on that essential benefit.

Gov. Rauner

At Illinois’ Lewis and Clark Community College, near St. Louis, the college did a great job of funding its efforts through the institution’s savings, said Steve Campbell, vice president of the NEA-affiliated union. “For a while, it seemed like we were holding it off… But this year it started to show. You could feel a tension on campus that hadn’t been there before,” he said.

“Our president was adamant in saying, ‘I want to keep things as they are,’ but even with that assurance, there was angst,” said Campbell. “Students and parents in Illinois are starting to look at higher ed in the state of Illinois and wondering if it’s a good bet.”

In fact, many Illinois students feel betrayed by Rauner and the lawmakers who enabled his refusal to fund higher education. Without MAP grants, which are essential for many students and families to pay their tuition bills, “students were really stuck,” Lynne Baker, spokeswoman for the Illinois Student Assistance Commission told Inside Higher Ed.  “There were students last year who dropped out.”

Other students said they spent as much time fighting for the viability of their institutions as they did studying for classes. “Morale is very very low,” Amy Sticha, a biology student at Northeastern Illinois University told the Chicago Sun-Times.

“We don’t know if our university will be open next year. Everyone I know has a backup plan in either Wisconsin, Indiana or Michigan. If we don’t get funding, if our university closes, then everything we’ve spent the last several years striving for is suddenly useless and we have no real reason to stick around.”

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