Illinois universities brace for more state budget cuts

(JanetandPhil/Flickr)
(JanetandPhil/Flickr)

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) - Gov. Bruce Rauner once again is calling for deep cuts in state funding for higher education, showing how tempting a target universities continue to be for a state desperate to get its budget under control.

The Republican proposed a 20 percent trim for the 2016-2017 fiscal year in his budget blueprint this month - a drop from a 30 percent cut he proposed last year. But the number is largely theoretical, since Rauner and Democratic leaders still haven't agreed on a budget for the current fiscal year, which means the campuses haven't received any money in months.

It'd be one of the largest pools of long-term funding available to cut if the state doesn't raise revenues, and the situation leaves public universities scrambling to cover costs.

Even the flagship University of Illinois, which has more resources than other campuses, is pleading for some kind of certainty going forward. In a letter to Rauner earlier this month, President Timothy Killeen pitched the idea of a multi-year budget for the university and highlighted all the sacrifices the school has already made.

"Those are high numbers," Killeen said in an interview with The Associated Press, referring to the latest proposed cuts. "And we don't believe they properly reflect the important role that higher education, public higher education, plays in the state of Illinois."

Here are questions and answers about the degree to which state money affects nine universities and almost 50 community colleges, and how they wound up at the heart of the budget impasse:

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Q: Why is higher education such a big topic in the budget stalemate?

A: Even though Rauner and the General Assembly never agreed on a budget, Illinois has been court-ordered to fund many state services anyway, pushing the state further into debt. That's not the case with higher education.

At $1.9 billion last fiscal year, the money going to state universities, community colleges and financial aid is among the more prominent spending categories.

The money also directly affects tens of thousands of families, as more than half a million people are enrolled in the public universities and community colleges.

Rauner often says he is an advocate of higher education and sees its value to the state, but also says Illinois can't spend money it does not have.

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Q: Is the lack of funding causing real problems?

A: Yes. Eastern Illinois University recently laid off almost 200 employees, and Western Illinois said Friday it is laying off 100.

Chicago State University told all 900 employees they could be laid off, though no action is expected for at least 60 days. The school also called off spring break and moved up the end of the school year to try to stretch its money, but it'll still run out of money at the end of March.

Schools also have been covering the expense of state grants for lower-income students in the absence of that money, but many community colleges say they can no longer afford the expense.

And Killeen says the situation has made top University of Illinois faculty a prime target for recruitment by out-of-state schools. Requests for increased pay and benefits to try to keep them have doubled over the past year, he said.

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Q: How reliant are the schools on state money?

A: It depends on the school. About 11 percent of last year's budget for the University of Illinois' three campuses came from the state. But with a budget of $5.6 billion, that's still more than $600 million, and about 80 percent of that covers salaries.

Chicago State, which caters to a low-income, predominantly black population on the city's South Side, gets about 30 percent of its operating budget from the state. Most of the rest of its money comes from tuition, with little in the way alternate sources such as alumni donations that at other schools make sup millions of dollars a year. School officials say the campus will run out of money in March.

By contrast, the U of I said in January that it has cash reserves to cover well over $600 million in salaries and grants for lower-income students, and plans to continue covering those costs on its own for the foreseeable future.

Community colleges' reliance on state funding varies, too, but many get about 10 percent of their budgets. However, they also receive money from local taxes that public universities do not.

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Q: How will it impact tuition?

A: Tuition is the revenue source schools have the most control over and increasing it is the easiest way to raise more money. A number of community colleges have voted in recent weeks to sharply raise tuition, by 10 percent or more in some cases.

But public universities In Illinois and across the country already have significantly raised tuition over the past decade - partly a response to diminished support from state governments.

With the cost of four years on campus now topping $100,000 at the University of Illinois campus at Champaign-Urbana, it is reluctant to ask parents and students for more and decided to keep tuition flat next school year, a second straight year without increases.

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