With no budget deal, Illinois community colleges brace for the worst

Spring semester is forcing tough decisions

The leaders of Illinois' community colleges are warning that if the state doesn't end its months-long budget impasse soon, they will be forced to make significant cuts in areas like staffing and adult education, Community College Daily reports.

Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democratic-controlled state legislature have been locked in a series of budget strikes and counterstrikes for months. So far, public colleges and universities have gone more than 100 days without state funding.

Illinois public colleges reach 100 days without state funding

The cuts have been mainly "theoretical" so far, with schools drawing down on other sources of funding at higher rates to compensate for the loss of state funding. But now community college leaders are sounding alarm bells, warning that creative accounting will only get them so far.

Minding the gap

Michael Monaghan, executive director of the Illinois Community College Trustees Association (ICCTA), says the state provides $300 million in annual funding to Illinois' 39 community colleges. But federal grants for programs like adult education flow through the state appropriations process, so the budget impasse means federal funding is on hold as well.

The effects of the funding crisis vary by school, with state funding making up anywhere between 5% and 40% of overall funding, depending on the strength of the local tax base and other factors. Monaghan says wealthy schools may be able to make do without state funding for a while longer, but other schools don't have that luxury.

"Less affluent colleges will run out in the middle of the spring semester, and then they've got a problem," he says.

But many schools will have to make funding decisions even sooner. Things like course schedules, layoffs, and other programmatic changes require months of lead time. "You can't offer classes and then say, 'We decided not to offer them,'" explains Terry Bruce, president of the Illinois Eastern Community College District, which relies on the state for about 40% of its funding.

Charlotte Warren, president of Lincoln Land Community College, says even if more money eventually comes through, the uncertainty is making planning nearly impossible. "We have no way to know when money will be received, or at what level it will be funded. For all of us, it means either not filling positions or holding them longer before we fill them."

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So far, the school has cut funding for its childhood development center, reduced travel expenses, and otherwise tried to "do things in a smarter way." But Warren says that is difficult when "80% of your budget is personnel."

Impact on students

If a budget isn't passed, the biggest immediate impact could be on adult education programs, which receive about half their funding through federal grants that are distributed through the state budget process. For now, many schools are "carrying [adult education] in their budgets without reimbursement from the state," Bruce says.

That raises another looming uncertainty: Will an eventual budget deal fully backfill funding from the early part of the fiscal year? "Our worry is that the state is going to say, 'You've made it this far, let's pay you less,'" Bruce warns. "That would be a disaster."

However, Monaghan stresses that students will also be losers if the budget situation isn't resolved. Right now, many colleges are fronting students the money for Illinois Student Assistance Commission grants, which average about $1,000 a year. If funding isn't restored, colleges will be in the difficult position of deciding how much they ask those students to pay during the spring semester.

"A number of colleges, depending upon where they're located, may not be able to float that many students for that kind of money," he warns (Finkel, Community College Daily, 11/2).

Thoughts on the story? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.

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