CARBONDALE — The regional accrediting agency responsible for assuring the quality of colleges and universities, including Southern Illinois University, sent a letter this past week to the governor and legislative leaders warning them that there could be “accreditation consequences” if a budget deal is not reached in short order that provides adequate financial support for Illinois institutions.
The Higher Learning Commission is the regional accrediting agency responsible for ensuring universities and colleges are making the grade, so to speak, in 19 states, including Illinois.
Barbara Gellman-Danley, president of the Higher Learning Commission, noted in her most recent letter, dated June 22, that she had previously written to the governor and legislative leaders, in February of 2016, with many of the same concerns about how the budget impasse could affect the quality of state's higher education institutions. “…however, these concerns have grown exponentially since that time,” she wrote.
“Sixteen months after my initial memo there remains no sustainable funding for higher education in Illinois. The continued lack of such funding places the higher education system of Illinois at considerable risk and is injurious to the very students the system purports to serve,” the letter reads. “As the accrediting agency tasked with assuring quality, I must warn you about the accreditation consequences of the failure to provide sustainable funding for Illinois higher education.”
SIU was first granted accreditation in 1913 and has held that distinction for more than 100 years through various ups and downs. The most recent reaffirmation of accreditation for the Carbondale campus was granted in 2009-2010 for 10 years. SIU Carbondale is due for a reaffirmation of accreditation review again in 2019-2020, according to information made available to the public on the Higher Learning Commission's website. The SIU Edwardsville campus was first granted accreditation in 1969, shortly after the younger sister campus was founded in the Metro East, and has received reaffirmation since then, most recently in 2014-2015. The Edwardsville campus is not due for a reaffirmation of accreditation review again until 2024-2025.
In a 2010 news release, Tom Woolf, the university’s associate director of communications and marketing, described accreditation as the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.” The review, which includes a self-study, considers such things as whether the university is fulfilling its teaching, research and community service missions, and how well it is prepared for the future, a question that considers financial stability and sustainability among other factors.
The importance of accreditation extends far beyond bragging rights. Gellman-Danley notes in her letter that students attending institutions that do not have status with an accrediting agency recognized by the federal government cannot access federal financial aid.
In 2016-2017, students attending Illinois colleges and universities received in excess of $4 billion in federal student financial aid. The Higher Learning Commission serves as the federally recognized gatekeeper for student financial aid, which is intended to protect taxpayers and students by ensuring the aid is used in the pursuit of a quality education that meets at least the minimum standards established for accreditation.
John Charles, director of government and public affairs for the Southern Illinois University System, called the letter from the Higher Learning Commission “concerning.”
“The budget impasse is now impacting the potential for a heightened accreditation review for Illinois higher education,” he wrote, in an emailed response to an inquiry from The Southern Illinoisan. “It’s just one more example of why we need the governor and the General Assembly to come together on a budget that provides full funding for university operations and covers MAP (Monetary Award Program) grants.
The letter from Gellman-Danley does not single out any institutions in raising its concerns, and all public institutions are struggling in the face of budget uncertainty, though some more than others. The Chicago Tribune first cited the letter raising accreditation concerns in an article that published during the weekend, and Rich Miller then shared it in full on his Capitol Fax blog.
The letter notes that the commission has been studying Illinois institutions of higher learning during the past two and a half years and has “observed the increasingly dire effects of this budget crisis.”
“These include but are not limited to the following:
• Increased tuition and fees for students and loss of MAP money for needy students;
• Significantly declining student enrollments;
• Loss of faculty and staff and elimination of academic programs and services;
• Canceled capital projects and cuts to plant operations, further diminishing jobs; and,
• Depleted or diminished cash reserves and loss of grant and charitable donation income.”
“Institutions exhibiting these problems, regardless of cause, are still subject to HLC standards that require the availability of appropriate financial, physical, and human resources,” she wrote. Her letter explained that when institutions no longer meet, or are at risk of not meeting these standards, the commission “is obligated to implement its system of sanctions and public information to alert the public about the impact on educational quality…”
According to the letter, that could mean some institutions may ultimately face withdrawal of accreditation, which means that their students could not access federal financial aid.
Many of the issues of concern cited in the letter that addresses Illinois' higher education system as a whole are specifically causing problems at SIU, particularly its Carbondale campus. Charles said the university has been and will continue to be mindful of how difficult budget decisions could affect accreditation.
Charles wrote, in his emailed statement, noting that he was reiterating that which SIU System President Randy Dunn has said on numerous occasions, wrote, “our first goal is to protect core academic programs and critical student services.” “An important component of that is to ensure that we maintain the foundation of accreditation that our whole system is built upon,” he continued.
Still, Charles concluded his brief comments on the subject of accreditation on a note of optimism. “That being said, we believe compromise will be found in Springfield and the need for this review will be eliminated.”
Gellman-Danley also wrote her letter that it is within the power of Illinois’ elected leadership “to stop this spiral of diminishing quality of higher education in Illinois and the resulting accreditation consequences.”
“I urge you to act immediately to fund higher education in Illinois,” her letter concluded. “You have the future of thousands of Illinois college students in your hands. Do what is needed to ensure that they have a strong education in Illinois.”