The University of Illinois’ quest to stabilize its finances with a five-year state funding agreement could be a template for other schools mired in Springfield’s gridlock, but passage depends on overcoming that very thing. There’s also the question of what any promise is worth from a precariously indebted state whose backlog of unpaid bills is projected to exceed $10 billion soon. Legislative action isn’t expected until next year at the earliest.
“It will be hard to pass this or any other legislation without a larger budget agreement in place,” said a co-sponsor, Sen. Bill Cunningham, D-Chicago. Rep. Michael Zalewski, D-Riverside, carrying water on the House side, cited its bipartisan appeal but said he hasn’t discussed the issue with Speaker Michael Madigan.
Confronted with slumping state support, U of I is vowing to rein in tuition increases and boost recruitment of in-state applicants in return for guaranteed funding and regulatory relief.
Asked if he could rely on state assurances, University President Timothy Killeen said: “We will do our part. The state would be expected to do its part.” To build support, he has talked with counterparts at other Illinois public universities, where, he reports, there’s a “general appreciation” of his plan “and in some cases a willingness to engage with their own versions.”
University spokesman Tom Hardy said chiefs of staff for Madigan and other legislative leaders have been kept abreast by Killeen and university lobbyists, “and they indicate readiness to begin the conversation.” University trustees are expected to consider the matter on Nov. 10, with Cunningham, Zalewski and other U of I alums in the legislature attending.
Tom Cross, chairman of the Illinois Board of Higher Education, said: “I applaud them. They’ve recognized a need for reform. They’re not just coming in and asking for money.”
Eastern Illinois University, the school hit hardest by Springfield’s budget wars, “acknowledges U of I’s plan as very interesting, and we will be looking closely at how it is evaluated by the General Assembly and governor’s office,” the Charleston school said in a statement attributed to President David Glassman. “We hope, at the very least, it will become a catalyst for dialogue leading to the stabilization of predictable state funding for higher education.”
Under the U of I proposal, the state’s flagship university would be guaranteed $662 million to $664 million annually, adjusted for inflation, for five years beginning in 2018. That range covers what the school received during the last fully funded year, fiscal 2015, according to U of I. So far during the current year, it has been promised $535 million.
In exchange, the deal provides that in-state applicants would account for at least half of expanded undergraduate enrollment and tuition increases would not exceed the rate of inflation. Although Illinois high school grads comprise about 80 percent of systemwide undergraduate enrollment (Urbana-Champaign, Chicago and Springfield) of 55,700, public schools like U of I increasingly have turned to foreign students, who pay full tuition.
Other key pledges would reserve one-eighth of state funding for financial aid, which Killeen said is “close to current experience,” and further diversify the student body by race and statewide geography.
The university also is looking for exemptions from procurement control and property code acts that it said hamstring equipment purchases amid more-nimble competition for faculty and research grants. By raising a $500 threshold to $5,000, U of I said, it could cut the number of tracked items by 85 percent while retaining oversight of 83 percent of them by value.
One law it wants restored: the Certificates of Participation Act, which expired in 2014 and would allow debt financing of campus capital projects.
Sen. Cunningham noted the possibility of passing a bill without a matching appropriation, only to throw cold water on it: “We could do that here, but it would sort of defeat the purpose. Almost everything out there has this pall hanging over it.”
Southern Illinois University and Western Illinois University representatives echoed comments by EIU’s Glassman about U of I’s plan. A spokeswoman saids Northern Illinois University is studying it. An Illinois State University spokesman did not respond to an email.