SPRINGFIELD — After going nearly a year without receiving any state funding, Illinois’ small and midsize public universities saw enrollment declines this fall that were among the largest for comparable schools across the region, according to a new survey of enrollment data.
Reviewing fall enrollment figures for 57 public institutions in Illinois and six neighboring states, the nonpartisan Illinois Campaign for Political Reform found that Illinois’ small and midsize schools “show falling enrollment numbers that are not on trend with similarly sized schools in the region.”
With a 7.5 percent drop this year compared with last, Southern Illinois University Carbondale was at the bottom of the pack among midsize schools, defined as those enrolling between 10,000 and 20,000 students. Western Illinois University fared only slightly better, with a 6.5 percent decline.
Eastern Illinois University, meanwhile, ranked third from the bottom among small schools, those enrolling fewer than 10,000, with a 13 percent decline.
Sarah Brune, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, said it’s hard to draw a direct correlation between enrollment declines and the budget impasse in Springfield because many factors affect students’ college choices. However, university officials, higher education advocates and state legislators have said numerous times that this year’s incoming freshmen were being encouraged by high school counselors and others to consider schools outside the state.
Amid the standoff between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democratic-controlled General Assembly, universities didn’t receive any state money last school year until lawmakers approved a partial funding measure in April. That was followed by more money from the six-month stopgap spending plan that’s funding state government through the end of December.
Taken together, the two measures provided Eastern, Western and Chicago State University with 90 percent of their annual funding to cover 18 months’ expenses and gave the six other university systems 82 percent.
“Without drawing a direct correlation, I think we all should be a little bit alarmed at what we’re seeing and hopefully keep this in mind when it comes time to renegotiate the stopgap budget,” Brune said.
Lawmakers will take up higher education funding, along with a host of other issues, when they return to Springfield following the Nov. 8 election. It remains to be seen whether they’ll reach a budget compromise before the new General Assembly is seated in January or whether the impasse will carry over into the spring legislative session.
Rauner continues to push for items on his “turnaround agenda,” such as term limits for elected officials and changes to workers’ compensation laws, which he argues will attract businesses and spur economic growth. Democrats continue to contend that those issues shouldn’t be tied to the budget.
“Illinois universities deserve our support, but we need economic growth to properly support the work they are doing to educate our students,” Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly wrote in an email. “That’s why the Governor continues to push for a complete, balanced budget with structural reforms.”
Despite these larger differences, a small bipartisan group of lawmakers who negotiated the higher education portion of the stopgap continues to have occasional discussions, and members see room for further agreement.
“If we can keep up what I thought were productive and positive discussions and lines of communication through putting together the next budget, then that’s going to be positive,” said Rep. Kelly Burke, D-Evergreen Park, chairwoman of the House Higher Education Appropriations Committee and a member of the bipartisan working group. “We had differences, don’t get me wrong, but we were able to come together and put a package together within the framework of that six-month budget.”
Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, another member of the working group, said he felt the group, which also included Rep. Norine Hammond, R-Macomb, and Sen. Donne Trotter, D-Chicago, was getting close to crafting a full-year higher education plan this spring when it became clear that an overall budget agreement wasn’t going to come together.
Higher education spending will have to be dealt with in the context of the entire state budget when lawmakers return, Rose said.
“The pressure will be enormous,” he said. “The only question will be whether you have a major overhaul of how the state does business … or whether you get another stopgap.”
Illinois State University chief of staff Jay Groves said that whether a deal is reached by the end of the calendar year or after, “there needs to be a discussion, a long-term discussion, about public higher education, how it is valued in Illinois and what budget do you place on that value.”
Illinois State, like the University of Illinois’ three campuses, saw an uptick in enrollment this fall. So far the school has been insulated from the budget fallout, and it has worked hard to allay the fears of parents and potential students, Groves said.
SIU spokeswoman Rae Goldsmith said the state’s budget problems will continue to hurt student recruitment until a solution is reached.
“It is still going to hang over us and many other public institutions in the state as along as the budget impasse continues,” Goldsmith said.