NORMAL, Ill. — Public community college and university officials in Illinois are walking a tightrope, trying to emphasize the harm being done by the ongoing state budget stalemate without scaring off potential students and making matters worse.
As it is, Illinois is second only to New Jersey in “exporting” its high school graduates to out-of-state universities.
Despite attempts by colleges and universities to calm the fears of parents and students about financial aid and program offerings, a sense of nervousness prevails.
That concern extends to their own employees.
Western Illinois University, which has campuses in Moline and Macomb, saw its full-time-equivalent enrollment drop from 9,560 in the fall of 2015 to 8,934 last fall, a decline of about 6.5 percent.
Matt Bierman, Western's interim vice president for administrative services and budget director, said it's become increasingly difficult to do long-range planning without a state budget in place.
Western received $8.4 million in emergency funding in a measure that also provided $5.6 million to Eastern Illinois University and $3 million to Chicago State University.
Bierman said, from a cash-flow standpoint, Western has enough to get through the spring semester.
“Our students should not be concerned,” Bierman said. "Our community should not be concerned."
Western also offers classes at its Quad-Cities riverfront campus in Moline.
“We are absolutely committed to the Quad-Cities," Bierman said. "It is a great option for many of our students, especially non-traditional students.”
Western laid off more than 100 people for the summer, but Bierman said, “Everyone who was laid off who wanted to come back was able to come back.”
Meanwhile, community colleges also are dealing with the effects of lower enrollment and state budget uncertainty.
Just last week, Black Hawk College in Moline announced it would eliminate 17 full-time positions, 15 of them on the Quad-Cities campus. The college said lower-than-expected enrollment and the loss of state funding forced the move.
"The College has received only 35 percent of anticipated funding from the state over the last two years," Steve Frommelt, vice president for finance and administration, said in a news release. "In addition, the lack of direction from lawmakers creates uncertainty and makes planning difficult."
Black Hawk said enrollment declined 8 percent in spring 2017 compared to spring 2016.
College President Bettie Truitt lamented the loss of "dedicated and valued people."
"But to ensure the financial health of the institution and continue to provide high-quality education to our students, we must be forward-looking in our planning and budgeting," she said in the release.
Difficult to plan
Illinois State University is on stronger financial footing than others in Illinois, but uncertainty still is taking its toll.
“We don't know what the future holds for us,” Illinois State President Larry Dietz said. “That creates anxiety throughout the whole campus.”
Spring semester started without a state budget in place for the second year in a row.
“People are tired of hearing, 'We're trying.' They've been 'trying' for two years,” Dietz said. “It's unfathomable that we don't have a budget.”
Illinois State sophomore Abby Mustread, a nursing student from Bloomington, said it's time for state officials to show “cooperation and some compromise. Work together.”
Tom Cross, chairman of the Illinois Board of Higher Education, said he is “cautiously optimistic” that a budget agreement will be reached soon, and “I think we'll have a pretty good recovery.”
But he admits that the impasse has made retention and recruitment of faculty and staff “a challenge.”
Southern Illinois University President Randy Dunn said the budget uncertainty has created “a crisis of confidence that caused students to go elsewhere.”
According to data from the Illinois State Board of Education, of the 2015 high school graduates who moved on to a four-year college, 45 percent — 18,165 — went out of state to attend college.
Of course, Illinois schools also attract students from other states. But Dietz said there was a net loss of 16,000 students to out-of-state schools.
That's a loss of revenue from those students and, Dietz said, “More importantly, we're losing their intellectual brainpower.”
Students who attend an out-of-state university or college also are less likely to return to Illinois after graduation, Dietz said.
Students are worried
Although public universities have been standing behind grants awarded to students through the state's Monetary Award Program and waiting for payment from Illinois, students are concerned.
“I get a MAP grant,” Illinois State freshman Anthony Clark said. “If that were to go, I would have to go.”
The economics major from Bloomingdale said, “I'm not the only one banking on it. … A lot of us are relying on it for our future.”
Karys Crandell, a freshman in creative writing from Peoria, said, “College is very expensive,” and she is “a little alarmed” that a budget agreement hasn't been reached.
Higher education is an important route out of poverty, Crandell said.
Illinois State and the University of Illinois saw enrollment increase last fall. Others weren't so fortunate.
Besides the drop at Western Illinois, fall enrollment at Eastern fell 13 percent to 7,415 and nearly 200 civil service employees were laid off in March.
In his State of the University address in September, Eastern President David Glassman said, “The events of the past year have shaken the level of trust between the state, their public colleges and universities and the citizens of Illinois.”
Eastern declined requests for an interview with Glassman or another administrator.
Even at schools that have avoided layoffs, such as Illinois State, vacant positions have been eliminated or left open.
Dunn said Southern has developed scenarios “allowing us to get through the fiscal year even without a state appropriation,” but he added, “We really are running on fumes to get to that point.”
Fall enrollment at Southern Illinois-Carbondale fell to less than 16,000, a 7.6 percent drop from the previous fall and its lowest point since 1965.
Other two-year colleges hurting, too
Illinois' other community colleges also are feeling the pain.
Last year, the Heartland Community College board voted to eliminate 23 positions over a three-year period at the Normal-based school. Most of that is being done through attrition, but five people lost their jobs.
Although the state budget impasse wasn't the sole cause, continued uncertainty about state funding was a factor, Heartland President Rob Widmer said.
“The uncertainty created is the most challenging element of it from everyone's perspective,” he said.
“We've tried to minimize the impact on students,” said Widmer, but tutoring, support services and library hours have been reduced.
In January, Richland Community College in Decatur announced it was eliminating several positions, including the vice president of economic development and innovative workforce solutions, chief of staff and director of human resources.
Richland has seen its enrollment drop by 13 percent in the past six years, at the same time state funds have declined 12 percent. However, it did not qualify for any of the $3 million in emergency funding given to financially troubled community college districts.
That went to Illinois Eastern Community Colleges, Kaskaskia College, Lake Land College, John A. Logan College, Rend Lake College, Shawnee Community College and Southeastern Community College. Lake Land in Mattoon is the only one north of Interstate 70.
Many community colleges have scaled back or eliminated their adult education programs because of a lack of state funding, only to have a stop-gap bill approve funding later in the year, but too late for programs that already had been canceled.
At Heartland, the number of adult education/GED classes was cut and class sizes were increased.
Cross said just like businesses hit with an economic downturn, colleges and universities need to “reorganize, reprioritize and think differently.”
“I don't want to minimize how important it is to have a budget,” Cross said, but he thinks the schools will emerge strong. “I hope we see this as a blip.”