For the first time in more than two years, Illinois’ public universities can start the school year with the promise of state money from Springfield.
Illinois went 736 days without a budget when lawmakers overrode Gov. Bruce Rauner’s veto of a spending plan and tax hike July 6. State universities received a fraction of their typical state funding before the spigot was shut off in 2017 — spurring campus shutdowns, layoffs, program cuts, maintenance failures and construction delays along the way.
School leaders shared the same reaction: relief. But while the budget satisfies many short-term needs, many say they face a daunting challenge to undo the havoc that the impasse wreaked upon the reputation and fiscal stability of public higher education in Illinois.
“You don’t get one year’s funding and have people say, ‘Oh, Illinois is totally fixed now,’ ” said Rachel Lindsey, interim president of Chicago State University. “I don’t think it would be in our best interest to think of ourselves as out of the woods just yet.”
Illinois sent more than $1.2 billion to the state’s 12 public universities in 2015, the last spending plan before the impasse. In the budget-less years, two stopgap bills in 2016 provided just $996 million in state support for public colleges over two years.
The new budget gives public universities about $1.1 billion for 2017-18, according to Illinois Board of Higher Education figures. That’s about 10 percent less than what those schools received in 2015, but still more than some college leaders were expecting.
The budget “will provide the certainty higher education leaders and supporters have been calling for to start moving Illinois forward again,” the education board’s chairman, Tom Cross, wrote in a memo this week. “All sectors of the state’s higher education system will benefit.”
But university leaders cautioned that the deal does not fully resolve the financial problems that schools endured.
Schools went nearly the entire 2015-16 year without a dime from the state, then received between one-fifth to one-half of their typical funding in the first stopgap bill in April 2016, just weeks before the end of the fiscal year. The spending plan provides no other funding for that year, leaving schools to swallow the burden it created in their finances.
The University of Illinois, for example, will have to go forward with a $467 million hole in its operations.
“We are still advocating for the restoration for the (fiscal year) 2016 budget,” U. of I. President Tim Killeen said at a board meeting Thursday. “Obviously the chances of that happening are diminishing over time.”
And at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, finances became so dire that the administration lent the campus dollars from the Edwardsville site to keep it running. President Randy Dunn said that kind of intra-system borrowing is no longer needed but Carbondale must continue with its plan to cut $19 million, which officials said includes eliminating dozens of staff and faculty.
Even with the additional money from Springfield, the university is in the hole $37.8 million for 2017.
The legislation is especially welcome for low-income students — those whose ability to attend college at all was put at risk because of underfunding of critical grants and scholarships. The deal boosts funding for Monetary Award Program grants by 10 percent: $401.3 million compared with $364.8 million from 2015, according to state data.
The bill also provides another $560.5 million to cover general operation costs for 2016-17. That, added with the second stopgap bill from June 2016, gives schools just over $1.2 billion — in line with a typical year of funding. MAP grants for last year, the costs of which some schools absorbed, are fully covered.
“It would be difficult to overstate the importance of this funding,” said Joseph King, spokesman for Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, where one-third of students receive MAP grants. “For them, knowing that MAP funding is guaranteed, without the caveat that they may someday be asked to pay it back, provides tremendous peace of mind and allows them to focus on their goal of earning a degree.”
Governors State University in University Park also covered MAP for its students during the impasse. About 1,200 Governors’ students received grants in 2015, comprising about 20 percent of its enrollment, according to the Illinois Student Assistance Commission.
Elaine Maimon, president of Governors State, said school officials were dreading how to address the issue if state funding still was not available to reimburse the university for MAP costs.
“We know that our students, many of them first-generation, that they just wouldn’t come to school,” Maimon said. “The financial issues were so oppressive to them. We did everything we could to say we will cover you and that’s a top priority.”
Lynne Baker, spokeswoman for the student assistance commission, which oversees several grants including MAP, agreed that fully funding the assistance programs is critical to keeping students enrolled.
“Truly it is the uncertainty that made it so incredibly difficult for students,” Baker said. “For the last two years, we’ve really turned financial aid on its head. We asked the very students who don’t have the funds to put forward the funds if their school couldn’t do it.”
Now, some money is already hitting the pipeline.
On Thursday, Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza released $327 million to pay 2016-17 MAP grants, according to a statement from her office. Another $36 million for MAP is going to community colleges.
Mendoza also said her office has started paying out $160 million for universities’ operational costs Thursday.
And with the money starting to flow, some cuts being considered for a third year of budget impasse now can be at least postponed.
Maimon said the board members had given her the authority to shut down Governors’ College of Education if money didn’t arrive in time. That is now off the table. Layoffs of about 180 full-time employees at Northeastern Illinois University have been paused, spokesman Michael Hines said.
Some university leaders said they are proceeding cautiously and delaying major moves until they know more precisely how much money for what is coming when.
“Because of future uncertainties and the far-reaching impact of the 700-plus day impasse, it is vital that we maintain Western’s ongoing fiscally conservative practices,” Western Illinois University President Jack Thomas wrote in a campus message.
Major credit agencies downgraded the ratings for nearly all the universities this summer, plunging several further into “junk” status. Poorer credit makes it more expensive to borrow for major projects.
The Higher Learning Commission, which oversees universities in 19 states, warned that schools unable to convincingly demonstrate financial health and provide quality academics could face sanctions.
State data show Illinois students are increasingly attending college in other Midwestern states. Some universities, like Indiana State University in Terra Haute, are targeting Illinoisans through special scholarships and reduced tuition.
“Those students who have decided to leave the state have already made that decision,” Northeastern Interim President Richard Helldobler said. “The rhetoric from a lot of our feeder schools has increased, and they’ve been very upfront about saying ‘We are encouraging students to go out of state.’ “
Considering how contentiously the budget came to fruition, school leaders said they must keep up their advocacy to avoid another potential impasse.
“It is important to keep that momentum going,” Illinois State University President Larry Dietz wrote in a campus message. “There may be a budget in place today, but it will take years of hard work to reverse the damage that has been done.”
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July 16, 2017 at 06:06AM