WSIU InFocus: Higher Education Budget

Jan 5, 2015

It’s no secret Illinois has been battling tough budget issues for the last several years. The state’s financial status became a big part of the contest for Governor in 2014.

So it was no surprise after Governor-Elect Bruce Rauner’s win in November, the projections for the coming year included the possibility of pain.

University and Community College Presidents were told to prepare models that included a 20-percent cut in state funding for the fiscal year that starts July 1 – and possibly a rescission for the current fiscal year.

“It is a financial perfect storm. The only thing that would be worse – and I almost want to knock on this table right here to say – the only thing that would be worse is declining property taxes for community colleges.”

Mike Dreith is the President of John A. Logan College in Carterville. His school has already been looking at ways to cut costs for at least two years – as budgets have been in the red. A rescission this year could mean the loss of two-million dollars out of their 30-million dollar budget – a 20% cut would mean more than five-million dollars lost.

Less than ten miles west of John A. Logan sits Southern Illinois University’s Carbondale campus. That school has been dealing with declining enrollment and budget struggles for years. System President Randy Dunn says the potential of losing 1/5 of the state appropriation is hard to take.

“For the Carbondale campus alone, including the Medical School, that would be something in the vicinity of $29 million or so, and to think about a means of getting that accomplished and still running the University becomes very, very difficult.”

Both SIU and John A. Logan are dealing with enrollment struggles – SIU’s enrollment leveled off last fall, after years of decline. Logan has seen an increase in the number of people taking classes, but those people are taking fewer credit hours – which means fewer dollars for the school. Potential state cuts of up to 20-percent will mean each school has to make difficult decisions on how to move forward.

“When you’re talking a cut at that level, you cannot do this on an across-the-board fashion. We’ve generally followed that approach over many years in doing give-backs or doing reductions, and this is not a hit on anyone – I’ve done it myself at different places – but to some degree it’s a lazy person’s way of doing budgeting. Just to send out a directive telling every unit to come up with X-percent really doesn’t force a thinking through of priorities, what the mission of the university is about, the things we should be doing and the things that we should be setting aside. I don’t know that I would call this a silver lining necessarily, but as we go through that process this Spring – again as we say where the politics takes us – we will be able to ask some questions about things that we’ve taken on and how central they are to the mission of teaching and learning.”

And Logan’s Mike Dreith says painful conversations are already starting.

“We’re trying to be systematic, purposeful, humane. Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve been working with the various groups, ‘Give us your best ideas on how we can save money – or make increased revenue. Give us your best ideas on how we can increase enrollment.’”

Both men say they’re trying to take an optimistic approach to the potential shortfall – looking at the next several months as a learning process, a part of the political negotiation in Springfield – but Dreith says finding the silver lining is more and more difficult as time goes on in Illinois.

“This is going to be a very unpleasant year for us. We’re sitting here, at the end of the year, when we normally sit back and reflect on successes of the last year and make our goals for the next year. And we can’t reflect on a lot of success, and we can’t find anything positive to look into the future.”

And while SIU’s President says he’s ready to take his school’s case to lawmakers and the Governor, Randy Dunn knows that even a best-case scenario may not be the good news he’s looking for.

“There is going to have to be adjustment made and we can anticipate some level of cut. I’m hard-pressed at this stage to think it will be a 20% loss in the state appropriation, but we’ll have to come up with something.”

The potential loss in funding is not a one-time deal, either. Whatever is cut could mean programs or services lost for years to come – which has long term effects in the region each school serves. Administrators all over the state are working to craft spending plans based on lots of different scenarios, knowing that they likely won’t have a final answer for their funding level until late May – or even later. That means they’re already looking for money wherever it can be found.

“In covering whatever our loss is, it’s not just going in and making cuts. It’s also looking at the revenue we can bring to bear. I’ve been talking with our Board (of Trustees) about the fact that we are probably going to have to look at some sort of increase in our pricing this year.”

Increased tuition costs could mean fewer students on campus, but Dunn and other administrators say in some cases, they have no other options. John A Logan’s Mike Dreith says he’s also concerned about commitments being made this year with so much uncertainty in the future.

“We’re already in a situation right now where we’re looking at scholarships for next year that have to be committed now, and I don’t know if I’m going to be in a position – I almost have to do that, there’s no other way, I’ll lose those students otherwise, not only in some key programs but in athletics – I’ve got to go ahead and do that. But there’s some of these programs for that matter that might have to be looked at as to whether we can offer them next year.”

Overall, both men believe there will be a cut. They both say they’ll do all in their power to make sure jobs are saved and programs for students are spared. But they also say the state’s budget problems cannot be solved without tough decisions in Springfield – and likely shared pain throughout the state.