Education Desk: Colleges Are Running Out Of Money

Dec 2, 2015

Illinois has not funded its colleges or universities for the past five months. It's easy to overlook that fact, because professors have continued to teach, athletes have continued to compete, and students have continued to learn. But around the state, college administrators are saying they've burned through their financial reserves.

Clockwise from top left: Tim Killeen, president of the University of Illinois; Wayne Watson, president of Chicago State University; State Rep. Bob Pritchard (R) of Hinckley; Tom Ramage, president of Parkland College

"What we're talking about in higher education, and what we're making active plans for right now -- at least in the community college system -- is complete and utter devastation," says Tom Ramage, president of Parkland College in Champaign. "And what that means is:  Shortly into the spring semester -- let's call it January, February, maybe March for some -- there will be colleges that won't have enough money to operate. They will be reduced to a handful of faculty and a few students in a building that they can't pay for the lights. I can't think of a worse scenario in higher education than what we're facing right now. It's a situation of atomic proportions."

Tim Killeen, president of the University of Illinois, told the Illinois House of Representatives last month that even the state's flagship of higher education was running out of funds.

"We recognize that we need to do more for less, in a fundamental way. We held tuition flat. And we're also now dealing with this budgetary impasse which is causing us to spend down all the reserves at the rate of about $75 million per month," he said. "So we have a little issue with Rome burning right now."

Wayne Watson, president of Chicago State University, says they need funds to maintain a safe campus.

"We are in the heart of the city of Chicago," he says. "We have a contiguous community around us that has one of the highest crime rates within the city. So we now have basically drawn a circle around our contiguous community, where we police into the community itself. So if we get our budget cut, I have to get rid of my state police. This will now put our faculty, our students at risk, and also our community."

The budget impasse is only part of the problem. Even if lawmakers reach an agreement, colleges probably won't get much money. Governor Bruce Rauner has proposed cutting higher education funds by almost a third.

We asked Bob Pritchard, a Republican from Hinckley and a 12-year member of the state legislature, to school me on higher education funding, beginning with Rauner's proposed 31.5 percent cut.

"I think his budget proposal back in February was the realization of what available money he had and how he thought it should best be spent," Pritchard says. "And I think part of that stems from the fact that there's a feeling within the administration that universities are well-funded, or that they have large reserves, and therefore they can afford to get by with less.

"But if you look at the trend of our public investment in higher education, since even the year 2000, it has been a tremendous disinvestment in the operations of the institution," Prichard says. "Now, we are paying more every year for pensions. So if you look at the absolute dollars that go for higher education, they're somewhat flat. But if you look at the dollars that the university has to invest in education, it's gone significantly lower.

"This is one of the biggest investments the state could make for job growth and the increase in earning ability of our citizens and therefore our natural growth in tax revenue," he says. "You know, you don't have to raise taxes; you just have to supply jobs and have people able to earn more at those jobs to generate more revenue for the state."

The fact that Rauner's proposed cut applies only to universities, not to community colleges, was intentional, Pritchard says.

"Well, he had mentioned in his budget that he was trying to keep community colleges pretty flat, yes, because that is a starting point. That is a low-cost way to get at least two years of education," Pritchard says, "and he was trying to encourage that. And again, it's the number of students that are in community colleges is larger than the number in four-year public institutions."

Pritchard declined to predict what might happen with education funding.

"It's difficult to have a very accurate prediction when the leaders are going to be the ones who decide what our revenue picture is going to look like, and what cuts can be made -- at least in the short term. The governor's reforms, to me, are more longer-term budget considerations," Pritchard says. "So if you're looking just short-term, you've got to just look at well, what kind of revenue do we have or are we willing to tax for? And then unfortunately, higher education takes a residual number. Whatever we're not spending on human services or public safety or prisons goes into higher ed.

"We ought to be looking more strategically and saying what's going to grow the economy? What's going to grow Illinois' attractiveness to bring companies and jobs here? And I think a skilled workforce has to be very high on the list.

"That's one of the reasons why there's been this push for 60 percent of our population having something beyond high school by 2025, because that's the demand of the marketplace. And if that's the case, and we're trying to reach that goal, we've got to keep putting money into higher ed. We can't keep cutting it, certainly not by 30 percent."

How does this mesh with the governor's pro-business agenda? "Yeah, it doesn't," Pritchard says.