Crisis in Illinois Higher EducationDebbie Sternecky, Advocacy ChairState of the State
The State of Illinois is currently into its second year of a budget impasse, which began on July 1, 2015. The state had been in financial straits for many years because of mismanagement of state funds. When Republican Bruce Rauner, whose $60 million campaign was funded primarily by wealthy individuals and businesses (Cooney, 2015), ran for governor of Illinois in 2014, he pledged to fix the finances of the state. Once he took office, he promoted his “Turnaround Agenda,” which, he said, would make Illinois financially competitive (Burnett, 2016). This plan contains many restrictions on the rights and limitations of the earning potential of individual Illinois workers, while providing limited improvement to the finances of the state. Most of the “Turnaround” provisions are aimed directly at unions and union workers. These include "eliminating ‘prevailing rate’ policies in public construction projects, taking collective bargaining rights away from local government employees, cutting workers’ compensation benefits for people injured on the job, instituting term limits and changing the way legislative districts are drawn." (Lynch, 2016) It quickly became clear that Rauner’s motives were not to improve the prosperity of Illinois, and, according to Keith Kelleher, president of SEIU Healthcare Illinois, rather “for one partisan political purpose alone: To rob labor of its power." (Kelleher, 2016)
Rauner has tied his “Turnaround Agenda” to the state budget; only if the legislature will approve the “Turnaround Agenda,” will he sign a state budget. The Illinois legislature, which has a Democratic majority, has not succumbed to pressure to pass Rauner’s agenda. Consequently, Rauner has refused to sign a budget for the state. As a result of this impasse, the state has been without a budget since July 1, 2015 (Burnett, 2016). This has had a devastating impact on citizens throughout the state, and higher education in Illinois has been a primary casualty.
MAP Grant Funding
Rauner has vetoed each budget-legislation bill the Democrats have tried to pass, except for the funding of K-12 schools, leaving universities without state funds (Galland & Ruiz-Branch, 2016). Thousands of low-income students in Illinois receive state grants for their higher-education tuition in the form of the Illinois Monetary Award Program (MAP). These grants, of which students receive a maximum of $4,720 a year, is awarded to students by the state based on individual need, and then distributed directly to the universities to be used towards tuition. When the money was not released from the state last year as a result of the budget crisis, universities and colleges scrambled to replace the funds. Some institutions fronted the missing funds, such as the University of Illinois, which covered approximately $61 million for its 15,000 students’ MAP Grants in the fall and spring semesters. Others, such as Illinois Institute of Technology, forced their students to repay the missing amount themselves (Cohen, 2016). Those institutions which covered the cost of the MAP grant amounts for their students included DePaul University, Loyola University Chicago, Illinois State University, Southern Illinois University, Roosevelt University, Northern Illinois University, Bradley University in Peoria and Rockford University; they were forced to cut expenditures elsewhere. For example, Southern Illinois University is not filling 50 faculty positions this year (Campbell, 2016) and Chicago State University had to end its 2015-2016 school year early last year because of the shortfall.
On June 30, 2016, Rauner signed into law Senate Bill 2056, which was a stopgap measure that released $151 million to repay universities and community colleges for the MAP grant money they had covered on behalf of students last year. However, no funding for the 2016-2017 school year was included in this bill (Petrella, 2016). Illinois still has no budget and funding of this year’s MAP grants have not been released.
This financial uncertainty has dire implications for the future of higher education in Illinois. In a survey by the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, approximately one in seven students said they may not be returning to college in Illinois this fall because of the funding problems with the MAP grants (Strahler, 2016). Southern Illinois University is expecting a 5% drop in enrollment this year and Chicago State University is expecting a decrease of 20% (Campbell, 2016). Chicago State, an urban school comprised of a majority of black students, 55% of whom are below the poverty level (Calhoun Jr., 2015), has also laid off 300 workers. Chicago State is now in danger of losing its accreditation (Campbell, 2016). This would have a disastrous effect on its 7,000 students, 42% of whom are first-generation college students (Calhoun Jr., 2015).
The State's Budget and the Credit Rating of its Universities
From a purely economic perspective, Moody Investment Services downgraded the credit rating of seven of the state’s universities, and, within a few days of the state’s approval of the stopgap measure, reported that the stopgap would not reverse the damage (Douglas-Gabriel, 2016).
While approval of the stopgap bill helped to alleviate some of the financial stress in the state, it was too little, too late. Under Rauner’s governorship, the state’s finances have been on a continuing downward spiral. Universities and colleges will no doubt lose students to states with more stable finances. I am a lifelong resident of Illinois, and it is unconscionable that our state legislators have not looked out for the interest of the most vulnerable in the state by overriding the governor’s vetoes on the budget. Illinois legislators need to pass legislation immediately funding the 2016-2017 MAP grants fully, and if the Governor vetoes the bill, the legislators need to know that their constituents will back them in an override. If they cannot muster the courage to override the Governor, they need to know their constituents will look elsewhere for leadership on election day.
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