Dietz: Impasse could lead to higher education ‘disaster’

NORMAL — With the failure of the so-called “grand bargain” to resolve Illinois’ budget stalemate, higher education officials are expressing concern over what comes next.

“If the impasse continues, at some point a higher education disaster will occur,” Illinois State University President Larry Dietz said Wednesday.

Dietz was not specific, but the news has not been good at several schools.

Governors State University in Chicago’s south suburbs announced Tuesday that it will cut 22 programs and increase tuition 15 percent. It has already cut 35 degrees and certificate programs in the last two years.

Chicago State University enrolled only 86 freshmen last fall and has seen overall enrollment fall to less than half what it was six years ago — with 3,578 students in fall 2016 compared to 7,362 in 2010.

An emergency funding measure was needed to funnel a total of $17 million to Chicago State, Western Illinois and Eastern Illinois universities late last year.

Speaking to The Pantagraph’s editorial board with several members of the Illinois Coalition to Invest in Higher Education, Dietz said passage of a budget — even one with huge cuts — “would represent stability. … The worst thing is not knowing.”

Although ISU remains “strong and stable,” Dietz said, “All of us feel the same frustration about not having a budget.”

Heartland Community College President Rob Widmer agreed that uncertainty has been “the overwhelming problem for us.”

Randy Dunn, president of the Southern Illinois University system, said “paralysis” is setting in because of the lack of direction, and it “has us frozen in time.”

Dunn criticized the “lack of leadership” at the state level, saying the approach seems to be “to see who the first one is to not be able to open in the fall. To me, that’s a dereliction of duty.”

Members of the coalition argue that higher education is an economic engine that is producing future employees and entrepreneurs that the state needs for its growth.

“Look at higher education as an investment rather than a cost,” said Dunn.

All schools have been making cuts, trying to protect their core missions and limit impacts on students.

Dunn said the failure of the grand bargain means “potentially a big second round of reductions that we won’t be able to do” with cuts around the edges.

Dietz and Dunn are among university leaders who testified Tuesday before the Senate Higher Education Committee.

Dietz told the committee that instead of asking how long universities can go without a state budget, the question should be, “How long can you go before Illinois public universities are severely, perhaps irreparably damaged?”

He said, “I’m afraid the answer is, ‘That’s already happened.’”

Public institutions are not the only ones being affected by the impasse.

Illinois Wesleyan University President Eric Jensen told the editorial board a quarter of IWU’s students receive Monetary Award Program grants and the percentage is even higher at other private schools.

Many institutions have been giving students credit for the state-funded grants so they can enroll and hoping the state will come through with the money later.

One way to increase pressure for action could be for schools to stop covering the cost of MAP grants without state funding, but Dunn said, “We’re not going to do that to our students and region. … We’re not going to play that card.”

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March 8, 2017 at 10:56PM

Dietz: Impasse could lead to higher education ‘disaster’

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