Opinion | Voice of The Southern: A clearer picture for SIUC

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We’ve all had the experience.

We’re standing on the shore of a lake or river and a boat passes by in the distance. It takes a while for the wake to reach the shore, but the effects of the disturbance inevitably appear. And, the waves continue lapping at the shore long after the boat has passed.

The State of Illinois went without a budget for two years. While the state did its best to minimize the effects, it was just a matter of time before citizens and institutions felt the wash. There were ripples throughout the past two years, cuts in services and some reduction in staff, but the first waves hit the beach this week.

The Southern Illinois University Board of Trustees meeting this week created some waves of its own, announcing cuts and consolidations in programs.

A case could be made that in light of the ongoing budget crisis, the cuts were overdue. Conversely, waiting until the state passed a budget put the university’s predicament into sharper focus, allowing a more surgical approach to cutbacks.

The Board of Trustees suggested the elimination of seven degree programs — bachelor’s degrees in mining engineering, business economics, physical education teacher education and Africana studies. Master’s programs in mining engineering and political science were also tagged for elimination as well as the doctorate program in historical studies.

First, it’s a shame that any academic programs have to be scuttled. College students are best served when the school of their choice provides the greatest diversity in programs and enrollment. If these programs are ultimately dropped, it will diminish the university.

On the other hand, there is the economic reality of 2017 and two years without a state budget.

The programs slated for elimination have historically not attracted a lot of students. In robust economic times, these programs could be considered a luxury. Given the reality of today — SIU will be receiving $91.4 million in state appropriations for FY 2018, down 10 percent from $101.6 million in FY 2015, the last year the state had a budget.

Clearly, reality dictates minimal luxuries.

Several other cost cutting moves were also announced. SIU will combine several programs into a new College of Media, Design and Fine and Performing Arts. Other areas of study will be rolled into the colleges of Agricultural Sciences and Engineering.

The consolidation will make the university a bit leaner and result in administrative savings. As SIU Carbondale’s enrollment continues to drop, changes along these lines were just a matter of time. The financial crunch pushed them to the front burner.

Finally, plans to raze University Towers and begin construction of new student housing were put on hold. The plans for new student housing have been on the books for several years. Eventually, as the towers age, the plan will have to be implemented. But that is the cost of, in this instance, the state not doing business.

The cuts outlined by the Board of Trustees aren’t draconian. To those of us outside the board room, they seem reasonable, although not particularly appealing.

“No one cheers a 10 percent cut, but … we know where we are,” said SIU president Randy Dunn. “It unfreezes things. It’s something we can work with. It’s sustainable. It’s predictable. We can do planning and implementation from that and we’re appreciative of having it.”

As noted earlier, this is the first wave.

The deteriorating financial condition of the state has changed variables for students selecting a university. More cuts are likely to occur before the state turns around. But, as Dunn said, the university now has a clearer picture of at least the immediate future.

Opinion | Voice of The Southern: A clearer picture for SIUC

Illinois’ Public University Problem: NEIU, GSU Presidents Weigh In

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Illinois legislators have finally passed a budget, but the two-year-plus impasse did not leave the state’s public universities unscathed: faculty and staff were laid off, student enrollment dwindled and bond ratings were downgraded.

In March, Northeastern Illinois University announced it would lay off 180 full-time employees to balance out a deficit deepening from lack of state funding during the budget standoff.

In a statement released on July 6, the day Gov. Bruce Rauner’s budget package vetoes were overridden by House lawmakers, NEIU’s interim President Richard Helldobler wrote the university “can finally after more than two years refocus its efforts from survival to building and enhancing an exceptional environment for its students.”

A Chicago-Sun Times article published Friday took aim at Helldobler for using university funds to pay for a trip to President Donald Trump’s inauguration in January.

Using money from the NEIU Foundation, which raises private funds for the school, Helldobler spent nearly $3,000 on a Grand Hyatt hotel room for four nights and close to $1,000 on airfare and two Inaugural Heartland Ball tickets.

Governors State University, located about 30 miles south of Chicago in Will County, will increase its tuition by 15 percent this fall to cope with little-to-no state funding.

The university’s president, Elaine Maimon, said that although the state has a budget, it doesn’t mean Governors State is out of the woods. For that reason, the tuition hike is permanent.

“We’re not going to put on rose-colored glasses,” Maimon said. “The state should be providing us more investment but it doesn’t look as if there’s a pattern for doing that, so it’s looking as if we’re going to have to be more tuition-dependent.”

Maimon pointed out that Governors State’s current full-year tuition, which is $8,160, is still among the most affordable schools in the Chicago area. Starting this fall, the full-year tuition will increase to $9,390.

Helldobler and Maimon join host Phil Ponce to share their perspectives on Illinois’ public universities.


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May 4: Overall state and local government support for higher education across the country fell by $130 per student in 2016, the first time that figure failed to grow in four years. And one group is pointing the finger squarely at Illinois.


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March 28: Paul Vallas and Chicago State University Board Chairman Marshall Hatch discuss the ongoing search for university leadership and what lies ahead for the beleaguered school.


Universities_1102.jpgUniversity Presidents Speak Out on State Stopgap Budget

Nov. 2, 2016: The presidents of four state universities discuss the ongoing impact of Illinois’ budget crisis.


Illinois’ Public University Problem: NEIU, GSU Presidents Weigh In

Our view: Don’t minimize damage done to state already

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While lawmakers are patting themselves on the back for finally passing a state budget, social service and education leaders are saying “thank you” through gritted teeth.

There are no congratulations for lawmakers who made few if any decisions on property taxes, pensions, workers’ comp and the business climate in general. The new budget is a triple whammy: cut social service and other funding, don’t address the core issues, and give all of its taxpayers a pay cut.

Yet, after two years without a budget, those who depend on state money have cut programs, cut staff, cut recipients. Even with the new budget, many will receive less money than in the past and others may find that it’s too little, too late.

Illinois State University, for instance, is working on a way to continue its mission with $7.2 million less than it received in 2015. Less state money and fewer students — many of whom are attending classes in another state — means trying to provide a great education with far fewer dollars.

Long term, students who attend college out of state often opt to stay outside of Illinois when they begin their careers and families. Why move back to a place whose leaders can’t come to an agreement on a budget, who undervalue social service and education funding, and whose lackadaisical attitude turns off the possibility of new business? Even worse, whose actions dissuade current businesses from expanding or staying in Illinois?

“It will take years of hard work to reverse the damage that has been done,” Illinois State University President Larry Dietz said in a letter to faculty and staff. University of Illinois President Tim Killeen, in a letter to faculty, staff and students, said, “I hope the lessons learned during this long and difficult impasses will help to restore long-term stability.”

Secondary education has its own issues because money in the new budget won’t be released immediately thanks to new rules that aren’t yet in place.

“Until the evidence-based funding model becomes law, that money will not be released,” said District 87 Superintendent Barry Reilly.

Hardest hit, however, will be the state’s social service agencies that help the poor, the elderly, those in need of medical, dental and mental health care, the homeless, the under-educated and the unemployed and underemployed.

Many such agencies, whose budgets rely on a higher percentage of state funding, already have cut staff, programs and the number of people they can serve. United Way of Illinois estimated that nearly 30 percent of the state’s social service agencies could close by the end of the year.

The lack of a budget, and subsequent agency and school cuts, had immediate repercussions, but more importantly, will have long-term ramifications for individuals, counties and the state.

People who have left the state for school or work won’t come back; neither will businesses that have moved. Businesses that considered, but turned away, from Illinois won’t give us a second look. People looking for work may consider a job in Chicago, but the rest of the state’s employment rolls likely will remain stagnant. That will affect sales and property taxes as well as retail sales.

Are we glad that Illinois finally has a budget? Yes. Do we think lawmakers truly understand the pain they’ve caused and will cause Illinois?

Our view: Don’t minimize damage done to state already

Opinion | Voice of The Southern: Tough choices had to be made

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The vast majority of Illinois residents have the luxury of being armchair quarterbacks.

We look at the myriad problems facing the State of Illinois and we point out “obvious” solutions. Sometimes our discussions get heated and loud. But, at the end of the day, the arguments, though entertaining, do little to affect policy.

That’s why we go to the ballot box every couple years, to select the people that will do our bidding. During the past week, State Reps. Brandon Phelps, D-Harrisburg; Terri Bryant, R-Murphysboro; Dave Severin, R-Benton; and Jerry Costello II, D-Smithton; as well as State Sens. Dale Fowler, R-Harrisburg, and Paul Schimpf, R-Waterloo, made difficult choices on Illinois’ budget and long-term financial health.

Phelps and Bryant voted to increase the state income tax from 3.75 per 4.95 percent. Severin, Fowler, Costello and Schimpf voted against the measure.

We believe Phelps and Bryant made the right choice. While we may disagree with Severin, Fowler, Costello and Schimpf, we truly respect their right to vote their conscience — this wasn’t an easy decision. Regardless of their votes, our six local legislators will feel the repercussions of that vote, and others, the next time we go to the polls.

That is the way it is supposed to work.

Unfortunately, in the hyper-partisan climate that is Illinois, some people don’t adhere to civil discourse. Bryant, a Republican who voted against her party’s position, has received threats of violence since casting her vote.

When did the citizens of Southern Illinois cross that line?

Illinois has been mired in a pitched ideological battle for the past several years. The state budget, and by extension, the citizens of Illinois, have been held hostage by the feud.

This newspaper has run a weekly feature counting the number of days the state has been without a budget. Time and again we have used this space to urge our legislators to ignore the “R” or the “D” behind their name, and vote in the best interest of the state.

We believe Rep. Bryant did just that. Her constituents have every right to disagree with her. They have every right to complain to her office. They have every right to vote against her in the next election. But, threatening physical violence is unacceptable — even in a state as dysfunctional as Illinois.

Opponents of Bryant’s vote, and the tax increase, argue that more cuts need to be made — in fact, the budget measure passed by the House and Senate calls for $2.5 billion in cuts, a figure higher than the budget submitted by Gov. Bruce Rauner.

As we have stated earlier, making cuts to improve efficiency is laudable. However, legislators were staring at some truly remarkable facts and figures. Illinois’ total budget is about $87 million. The state has $15 billion in overdue bills — just over 17 percent of the annual budget.

Through the ongoing budget crisis, Illinois’ government has gotten pretty lean. In 2011, the Associated Press reported Illinois had the fewest state workers per capita — just 4.1 per 1,000 people.

Raise Your Hand for Public Education reports Illinois ranks 50th among the states in K-12 funding, providing less than 20 percent funding to elementary and secondary schools. The national average is 45 percent.

Finally, people keep tossing around the fact that Illinois income taxes are increasing 32 percent to 4.95 percent. Among states with a flat income tax rates, Illinois ranks behind North Carolina (5.75), Massachusetts (5.1) and Utah (5.0).

And, in states with progressive income taxes, Illinois is nowhere near the top. California’s top rate is 13.3 percent, Oregon is 9.9, Minnesota 9.85 and neighboring Iowa is 8.98.

Clearly the deep financial hole Illinois has dug for itself cannot by filled by cuts alone. In addition, legislators were looking at Illinois’ bond rating being lowered to junk status, a measure that would have cost the state even more when borrowing funds.

With unfunded pension liabilities, school districts and universities swimming in red ink, there is still plenty of work to do.

As much as we hate having our taxes raised, tough choices had to be made — this wasn’t going to be easy.

Bryant stepped up to make a choice that we believe benefits the state in both the long and short term. Voters are free to agree or disagree with her vote. But, they are obligated, morally and legally, to express that disagreement in a civil manner.

Opinion | Voice of The Southern: Tough choices had to be made

Loss of Accreditation Could Cost Colleges Billions

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If Illinois lawmakers fail to enact a budget, state universities could potentially lose as much as $4 billion in federal funds.

That’s according to Randy Dunn, president of Southern Illinois University. He says the Higher Learning Commission has threatened to pull some schools’ accreditation — a move that would cause serious ripple effects.

 

“That is a high stakes proposition,” he says, “because without the federal accreditation, we have no access to federal financial aid.”

The Higher Learning Commission accredits post-secondary schools in 19 states on a variety of criteria. One of those, Core Component 5.A., concerns fiscal stability: “The institution’s resources, structures, and processes are sufficient to fulfill its mission, improve the quality of its educational offerings, and respond to future challenges and opportunities. The institution plans for the future.”

In December, HLC asked state universities to prepare financial reports to demonstrate whether they have the resources to remain accredited.

Federal funds including PELL grants are available for use only at accredited institutions. So losing accreditation would mean losing that resource.

Dunn says SIU alone would lose about $230,000, and other schools could bring that total as high as $4 billion. Robert J. Jones, chancellor of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus, said the U of I system was secure thanks to their numerous funding streams.

Officials from several schools testified before the House of Representatives last night, explaining yet again how two years of operating on unpredictable and minimal “stop-gap” funding while the partisan budget impasse has dragged on has “devastated” their institutions. Most of those officials have become regular visitors to the statehouse; for Dunn, last night’s appearance marked the 5th time he testified before legislators, and he said he struggled to come up with a new metaphor to describe his school’s situation. He is also preparing a second round of layoffs at the Carbondale campus, which would cost 80 people their jobs.

“I was going to use this analogy about the state’s higher education system being in ICU, being in critical care, and it’s time to save the patient,” he said afterward. “I decided that might be a bit over-the-top.”

 

 

 

 

Loss of Accreditation Could Cost Colleges Billions

Budget impasse could have ‘accreditation consequences’ for Illinois colleges and universities

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CARBONDALE — The regional accrediting agency responsible for assuring the quality of colleges and universities, including Southern Illinois University, sent a letter this past week to the governor and legislative leaders warning them that there could be “accreditation consequences” if a budget deal is not reached in short order that provides adequate financial support for Illinois institutions.

The Higher Learning Commission is the regional accrediting agency responsible for ensuring universities and colleges are making the grade, so to speak, in 19 states, including Illinois.

Barbara Gellman-Danley, president of the Higher Learning Commission, noted in her most recent letter, dated June 22, that she had previously written to the governor and legislative leaders, in February of 2016, with many of the same concerns about how the budget impasse could affect the quality of state’s higher education institutions. “…however, these concerns have grown exponentially since that time,” she wrote.

“Sixteen months after my initial memo there remains no sustainable funding for higher education in Illinois. The continued lack of such funding places the higher education system of Illinois at considerable risk and is injurious to the very students the system purports to serve,” the letter reads. “As the accrediting agency tasked with assuring quality, I must warn you about the accreditation consequences of the failure to provide sustainable funding for Illinois higher education.”

SIU was first granted accreditation in 1913 and has held that distinction for more than 100 years through various ups and downs. The most recent reaffirmation of accreditation for the Carbondale campus was granted in 2009-2010 for 10 years. SIU Carbondale is due for a reaffirmation of accreditation review again in 2019-2020, according to information made available to the public on the Higher Learning Commission’s website. The SIU Edwardsville campus was first granted accreditation in 1969, shortly after the younger sister campus was founded in the Metro East, and has received reaffirmation since then, most recently in 2014-2015. The Edwardsville campus is not due for a reaffirmation of accreditation review again until 2024-2025.

In a 2010 news release, Tom Woolf, the university’s associate director of communications and marketing, described accreditation as the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.” The review, which includes a self-study, considers such things as whether the university is fulfilling its teaching, research and community service missions, and how well it is prepared for the future, a question that considers financial stability and sustainability among other factors.

The importance of accreditation extends far beyond bragging rights. Gellman-Danley notes in her letter that students attending institutions that do not have status with an accrediting agency recognized by the federal government cannot access federal financial aid.

In 2016-2017, students attending Illinois colleges and universities received in excess of $4 billion in federal student financial aid. The Higher Learning Commission serves as the federally recognized gatekeeper for student financial aid, which is intended to protect taxpayers and students by ensuring the aid is used in the pursuit of a quality education that meets at least the minimum standards established for accreditation.

John Charles, director of government and public affairs for the Southern Illinois University System, called the letter from the Higher Learning Commission “concerning.”

“The budget impasse is now impacting the potential for a heightened accreditation review for Illinois higher education,” he wrote, in an emailed response to an inquiry from The Southern Illinoisan. “It’s just one more example of why we need the governor and the General Assembly to come together on a budget that provides full funding for university operations and covers MAP (Monetary Award Program) grants.

The letter from Gellman-Danley does not single out any institutions in raising its concerns, and all public institutions are struggling in the face of budget uncertainty, though some more than others. The Chicago Tribune first cited the letter raising accreditation concerns in an article that published during the weekend, and Rich Miller then shared it in full on his Capitol Fax blog.

The letter notes that the commission has been studying Illinois institutions of higher learning during the past two and a half years and has “observed the increasingly dire effects of this budget crisis.”

“These include but are not limited to the following:

• Increased tuition and fees for students and loss of MAP money for needy students;

• Significantly declining student enrollments;

• Loss of faculty and staff and elimination of academic programs and services;

• Canceled capital projects and cuts to plant operations, further diminishing jobs; and,

• Depleted or diminished cash reserves and loss of grant and charitable donation income.”

“Institutions exhibiting these problems, regardless of cause, are still subject to HLC standards that require the availability of appropriate financial, physical, and human resources,” she wrote. Her letter explained that when institutions no longer meet, or are at risk of not meeting these standards, the commission “is obligated to implement its system of sanctions and public information to alert the public about the impact on educational quality…”

According to the letter, that could mean some institutions may ultimately face withdrawal of accreditation, which means that their students could not access federal financial aid.

Many of the issues of concern cited in the letter that addresses Illinois’ higher education system as a whole are specifically causing problems at SIU, particularly its Carbondale campus. Charles said the university has been and will continue to be mindful of how difficult budget decisions could affect accreditation. 

Charles wrote, in his emailed statement, noting that he was reiterating that which SIU System President Randy Dunn has said on numerous occasions, wrote, “our first goal is to protect core academic programs and critical student services.” “An important component of that is to ensure that we maintain the foundation of accreditation that our whole system is built upon,” he continued.

Still, Charles concluded his brief comments on the subject of accreditation on a note of optimism. “That being said, we believe compromise will be found in Springfield and the need for this review will be eliminated.”

Gellman-Danley also wrote her letter that it is within the power of Illinois’ elected leadership “to stop this spiral of diminishing quality of higher education in Illinois and the resulting accreditation consequences.”

“I urge you to act immediately to fund higher education in Illinois,” her letter concluded. “You have the future of thousands of Illinois college students in your hands. Do what is needed to ensure that they have a strong education in Illinois.”

Budget impasse could have ‘accreditation consequences’ for Illinois colleges and universities

Springfield seeks a cure for dying College Illinois

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College Illinois remains on a course to insolvency in less than a decade, and state officials are at last getting ready to do something about it. After a fifth straight year of dismal sales of new “prepaid tuition” contracts, the administrators of the program will present lawmakers and Gov. Bruce Rauner with some options at hearings planned for this summer.

Expected to be considered is the closure of the college savings plan to new contract purchasers. And on the other side of the spectrum: providing a statutory guarantee that the state will make beneficiaries whole if the investment fund supporting College Illinois runs dry.

Right now, that’s exactly what will happen by 2026, according to the most recent projections by actuaries for the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, which runs College Illinois.

If annual sales of prepaid tuition contracts to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign or other state schools don’t average at least 1,000, the $891 million fund supporting those contracts will run out of money. There are nearly 40,000 College Illinois contracts outstanding.

In the latest sales season that concluded May 31, ISAC sold just The financial stakes are large—if fortunately not immediate—for a state on the verge of a junk credit rating.

If the fund were to be closed to new contract holders now, ISAC estimates the present value of the eventual shortfall in the fund at $350 million. “It’s a big problem,” says state Rep. Kelly Burke, D-Evergreen Park, who chairs the House Appropriations-Higher Education Committee.

She plans, along with possibly some other committees, to hold hearings this summer on the predicament and possible ways to address it. The aim would be to forge an agreement with Rauner and others and act in the Legislature as soon as possible on a way to build public confidence in the program, she says.

College Illinois is the lesser-known of Illinois’ two college savings vehicles. Higher-profile and more popular is BrightStart, which enables parents to save and invest for college and withdraw funds for that use without being taxed on the gains. But BrightStart, managed by the Illinois treasurer’s office, provides no guarantees of returns or that the amount saved over time will be enough to cover the price tag.

For many years, the state marketed College Illinois as an alternative, worry-free way to ensure parents had enough money for their kids to attend a state school. The program locks in a cost and then promises to cover whatever tuition turns out to be when beneficiaries are ready for college. Pricing for new contract holders changes each year.

But making good on the pledge requires accurate projections of both college-cost inflation and how much the investment fund will return each year. If those projections are off and the fund runs dry, the state doesn’t promise to make contract holders whole.

The program’s temporary suspension occurred in 2011 after a Crain’s investigation exposed ISAC’s risky investment strategy at the time to goose returns and close a yawning funding shortfall. Many contract holders also were under the impression, reinforced through misleading marketing, that their contracts carried a state guarantee to make up any shortfall.

Add to that lingering issue the impact of the state’s budget impasse, which is disproportionately hurting public higher education, and the plan clearly has lost appeal. ISAC now is openly acknowledging College Illinois is at a crossroads but would like to find a way to keep it open. “Restoring contract sales to self-sustaining is in the best interest of contract holders and the state,” ISAC Executive Director Eric Zarnikow says in an email.

Rep. Burke says she expects ISAC to present lawmakers with the option of closing the fund to new participants. That’s clearly not Zarnikow’s first choice. “Our goal is to protect contract holders, and permanently discontinuing contract sales would essentially lock in the unfunded liability,” he says.

One idea that will be considered is backing the contracts with the “full faith and credit” of the state. On its face, that seems questionable given the state’s status as a fiscal basket case with billions in unpaid bills. “That is an excellent question,” Burke says. “We’re going to flesh that out this summer.”

But the argument for a guarantee would be that if it restores public confidence enough to raise annual contract sales to a self-sustaining level, the state will save money in the long run. That is, assuming lawmakers wouldn’t abandon contract holders once the fund emptied out.

Other ideas might include asking the state’s universities and colleges to accept less than full price from contract holders given that fewer students these days pay the “sticker price” for college after discounts and grants.

That clearly won’t be appealing to university presidents who have had to lay off personnel to cope with the loss of state support.

None of the choices is obvious. And all carry risks. Just what a bumbling state government needs.

Springfield seeks a cure for dying College Illinois