Schools search for efficiencies during budget impasse

By Greg Bishop 
Illinois News Network

It’s a mixed bag for Illinois’ public universities, which have gone two years without full appropriations from state taxpayers. Some say they’re managing, while others say they’re crumbling.

During a House Higher Education Committee hearing last week in Springfield, Illinois State University President Larry Dietz said ISU will continue to find efficiencies and savings in lieu of state funding.

“And to try and restore some of that lost confidence in the state, I will ask our board of trustees in May to not increase tuition, fee, room and board rates for the upcoming academic year,” Dietz said, adding that he’s not sure ISU can continue to hold the line in the future. H said he’s optimistic state lawmakers will pass a budget for the coming fiscal year that starts July 1.

In the past 22 months, some state tax dollars have gone to public universities and tuition assistance through stopgap funding measures, but the most recent spending plan expired at the beginning of this year and lawmakers have since not acted on releasing funds by passing a budget on to the governor.

Moody’s Investors Service said Monday it’s placing the state’s public universities under review for downgrade because of the nearly 22-month-long budget impasse.

Northern Illinois University’s Douglas Baker said NIU is struggling to maintain core functions and long-deferred maintenance projects to “fix the roofs, fix the roads, become more energy efficient and replace critical issues like boilers.”

Eastern Illinois University President David Glassman said steps have been taken to maintain operations without putting pain on students on EIU’s campus and they continue “to look for additional efficiencies in facilities, additional efficiencies in marketing and enrollment management, student services, academic programs and so on to look at the entire university holistically.”

Glassman also said some staff have taken on additional responsibilities.

It’s a different story for Chicago State University, where President Cecil Lucy said the university has laid off staff and had freshman enrollment of just 86 students in 2016.

“What is happening in the state of Illinois is having a negative impact on accreditation and we must treat this as a crisis,” Lucy said.

During last week’s hearing, no university officials or lawmakers discussed the growing cost of pensions.

According to the Illinois Board of Higher Education, between the years of 2005 and 2015, funding from the state increased nearly 50 percent. When including money for higher education pensions, funding increased from $2.4 billion to $3.5 billion.

The National Center for Education Statistics puts the average total cost of Illinois’ public universities fourth highest of all 50 states.

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