Illinois budget standoff may mean college closures in spring

'This is a crisis by every definition of the word'

Officials from some Illinois public colleges and universities say they will be unable to pay employees by March if the state does not pass a budget.

The state Legislature has been locked in a budget stalemate with Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) 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, nor have students who rely on state-awarded Monetary Award Program (MAP) grants.

The state currently owes the University of Illinois $640 million, in addition to $31 million for student financial aid.

Community colleges in Illinois can levy taxes and borrow money without state government approval, but regional colleges must ask permission.

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

But even that may not be enough for Chicago State University and Northeastern Illinois University.

"This is a crisis by every definition of the word," says Thomas Wogan, a Chicago State spokesperson.

Trustees at Chicago State may declare a financial exigency and alter labor contracts, ask faculty to work without pay next semester, cut student services, and lay off employees.

Last week, university labor groups, businesses, and officials held a press conference to draw public attention to the budget standoff's effect on public higher education.

"When colleges and universities reach this point of no return—when bills cannot be paid and payroll cannot be met—they will close," university presidents wrote in a letter to Rauner and the Legislature.  "The results will be catastrophic for the economy of the State of Illinois, and it will shatter the dreams and lives of hundreds of thousands of Illinois students and families."

Colleges also continue to struggle as students who relied on the MAP grants do not return this semester. While many institutions covered the grants themselves last semester, cash reserves are running low and several cannot afford to front the money any longer.

Sen. Pat McGuire (D), chair of the state senate's higher-education committee introduced a bill to reimburse colleges for grants they awarded—up to $186 million total. It's unclear whether the measure will pass and avoid a veto by Rauner.  

Losing students and faculty

Thousands of students may end up not returning, says Randy Dunn, president of the Southern Illinois University System, because of financial aid uncertainties. At Danville Area Community College, 180 students will go without the aid, while 200 will not receive it at Richland Community College.

Recruiting students is also getting more difficult. Western Illinois University, for example, has increased the number of schools it targets for recruitment, but "interest in Illinois public higher education continues to wane," says Darcie Shinberger, a university spokesperson.

Many faculty members at Illinois public universities say they are looking elsewhere for work, as well.

"These are people's lives and their employment, and you're having to make decisions on the very conservative assumption that money’s not coming," says Tammy Clark-Betancourt, Danville's CFO (Gurciullo/Cohen, Chicago Tribune, 1/21; Brown, Chronicle of Higher Education, 1/21; Cohen, Chicago Tribune, 1/20).


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