Illinois colleges reach six months without state funding

'We're seeing this incremental dismantling of our universities piece by piece'

Public colleges and universities in Illinois have now gone half a fiscal year without a state budget or funding, and leaders at the institutions say the situation is unsustainable.

The state Legislature has been locked in a budget stalemate with Gov. Bruce Rauner since summer; Rauner sought a 31.5% cut to higher education, while legislators wanted to limit the cut to 8.6%. In the meantime, schools have received nothing from the state government—as have students who rely on state-awarded Monetary Award Program (MAP) grants.

Background: Illinois public colleges reach 100 days without state funding

Some higher ed leaders are concerned that the government could punt the budget battle until the spring. 

To keep their doors open, schools are deferring maintenance, redistributing funds designated for special projects, laying off staff, and considering cutting academic programs.

"We're seeing this incremental dismantling of our universities piece by piece, as people get laid off and things get shut down," says Randy Dunn, president of the Southern Illinois University System. "Over time you turn around and you wonder what happened to your university. Piece by piece it just disappeared on you. I worry that we started down that path."

And for schools already facing stability challenges, the increased financial pressure may result in serious long-term issues.

"At some point we're not going to be able to meet payroll and function as a university," says Tom Wogan, Chicago State University's director for public relations and government affairs. "We're getting through week by week, but that is by burning through cash reserves that we previously were relying on for financial security."

Students are feeling the effects, as well. About 130,000 students in the state receive MAP grants, and while most colleges have covered the funds so far, at least one private school has been unable to do so. The lack of funding may force some students to drop out and lead to less racial and socioeconomic diversity at Illinois schools (Woodhouse, Inside Higher Ed, 1/7).

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