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This story is part of a collaborative series between The Southern and its sister papers throughout Illinois, the “State of the Standoff,” which looks at those most affected by the failure of state leaders and lawmakers to make tough budget decisions.

Public community college and university officials in Illinois are walking a tightrope, trying to emphasize the harm being done by the ongoing state budget stalemate without scaring off potential students and making matters worse.

As it is, Illinois is second only to New Jersey in “exporting” its high school graduates to out-of-state universities.

Despite attempts by colleges and universities to calm the fears of parents and students about financial aid and program offerings, a sense of nervousness prevails.

And that concern extends to their own employees.

Southern Illinois University President Randy Dunn said the budget uncertainty has created “a crisis of confidence that caused students to go elsewhere.”

According to data from the Illinois State Board of Education, of the 2015 high school graduates who moved on to a four-year college, 45 percent — 18,165 — went out of state to attend college.

Illinois State University is on stronger financial footing than others in Illinois, but uncertainty is still taking its toll.

“We don't know what the future holds for us,” said ISU President Larry Dietz. “That creates anxiety throughout the whole campus.”

Spring semester started without a state budget in place for the second year in a row.

“People are tired of hearing, 'We're trying.' They've been 'trying' for two years,” said Dietz. “It's unfathomable that we don't have a budget.”

ISU sophomore Abby Mustread, a nursing student from Bloomington, said it's time for state officials to show “cooperation and some compromise. Work together.”

Tom Cross, chairman of the Illinois Board of Higher Education, said he is “cautiously optimistic” that a budget agreement will be reached soon and “I think we'll have a pretty good recovery.”

But he admits that the impasse has made retention and recruitment of faculty and staff “a challenge.”

Of course, Illinois schools also attract students from other states. But Dietz said there was a net loss of 16,000 students to out-of-state schools.

That's a loss of revenue from those students and, Dietz said, “More importantly, we're losing their intellectual brainpower.”

Students who attend an out-of-state university or college also are less likely to return to Illinois after graduation, according to Dietz.

Although public universities have been standing behind grants awarded to students through the state's Monetary Award Program and waiting for payment from Illinois, students are concerned.

“I get a MAP grant,” said ISU freshman Anthony Clark. “If that were to go, I would have to go.”

The economics major from Bloomingdale noted, “I'm not the only one banking on it. … A lot of us are relying on it for our future.”

Karys Crandell, a freshman in creative writing from Peoria, said, “College is very expensive” and she is “a little alarmed” that a budget agreement hasn't been reached.

Higher education is an important route out of poverty, said Crandell.

ISU and the University of Illinois saw enrollment go up last fall. Others weren't so fortunate.

Western Illinois University saw its full-time-equivalent enrollment drop from 9,560 in the fall of 2015 to 8,934 last fall, a decline of about 6.5 percent.

Matt Bierman, WIU's interim vice president for administrative services and budget director, said it's become more and more difficult to do long-range planning without a state budget in place.

WIU received $8.4 million in emergency funding in a measure that also provided $5.6 million to Eastern Illinois University and $3 million to Chicago State University.

Bierman said, from a cash flow standpoint, WIU has enough to get through the spring semester.

“Our students should not be concerned. Our community should not be concerned,” said Bierman.

Western also offers classes through facilities in the Quad Cities. Bierman said, “We are absolutely committed to the Quad Cities. It is a great option for many of our students, especially non-traditional students.”

Western laid off more than 100 people for the summer, but Bierman said, “Everyone who was laid off who wanted to come back was able to come back.”

Meanwhile, fall enrollment at Eastern fell 13 percent to 7,415 and nearly 200 civil service employees were laid off in March.

In his State of the University address in September, EIU President David Glassman said, “The events of the past year have shaken the level of trust between the state, their public colleges and universities, and the citizens of Illinois.”

EIU declined requests for an interview with Glassman or another administrator.

Even at schools that have avoided layoffs, such as Illinois State, vacant positions have been eliminated or left open.

Dunn said SIU has developed scenarios “allowing us to get through the fiscal year even without a state appropriation,” but he added, “We really are running on fumes to get to that point.”

Just last Thursday, SIU officials announced that they were cutting the men’s and women’s tennis programs and reducing scholarships in men’s swimming and diving — estimated to save the athletic department $660,000, beginning in the new school year.

The budget stalemate has already led to a nearly decimated Small Business Development Center, part of SIU Economic Development Office, across from the sports stadium.

That used to be where Michelle Breslin, who specialized in international business contracts, worked, until she and several of her other colleagues realized it would be wiser and healthier to find more stable employment.

Breslin was one of the 11 people who worked for the Small Business Development Center a year and a half ago; today it employs just one, its director. That center is part of the SIU Economic Development Office, which employed 21 people — professional, graduate assistants and students workers — as of January, down from 38 people in October 2015.

“We’re not able to provide the same delivery of services that we were, say two years ago,” said Kyle Harfst, executive director of Southern Illinois Research Park, Inc. “We don’t have the staff to be able to do that.”

He also noted that the allocation the Economic Development Office gets from the university also impacts the grants to which it can apply, many grants that require some matching funds.

“Should our state account funding go way from the university, we are not going to be able to do that anymore, which will reduce or eliminate the office.”

Community colleges also are feeling the pain.

Last year, the Heartland Community College board voted to eliminate 23 positions over a 3-year period at the Normal school. Most of that is being done through attrition, but five people lost their jobs.

Although the state budget impasse wasn't the sole cause, continued uncertainty about state funding was a factor, said Heartland President Rob Widmer.

“The uncertainty created is the most challenging element of it from everyone's perspective,” he said.

“We've tried to minimize the impact on students,” said Widmer, but tutoring, support services and library hours have been reduced.

In January, Richland Community College in Decatur announced it was eliminating several positions, including vice president of economic development and innovative workforce solutions, chief of staff and director of human resources.

Richland has seen its enrollment drop by 13 percent in the past six years, at the same time state funds have declined 12 percent. However, it did not qualify for any of the $3 million in emergency funding doled out to financially troubled community college districts.

That went to Illinois Eastern Community Colleges, Kaskaskia College, Lake Land College, John A. Logan College, Rend Lake College, Shawnee Community College and Southeastern Community College. Lake Land in Mattoon is the only one north of Interstate 70.

Community colleges like Shawnee Community College have also had to lay off staff.  Since the budget impasse began in 2015, Shawnne Community College administrators have laid off three full-time faculty positions and ended up hiring back for one of those positions. They also laid off four full-time staff positions and didn't fill two of those positions, according to Katie Armstrong, the college's marketing coordinator.

One of those laid off was professor Nova Randolph, who said she is still looking for work, but wants to stay near family in Southern Illinois. Randolph, who was in the college’s accounting department, still teaches a few classes at the college each week, as she continues to look for a permanent job.

“It is starting to make me really nervous ’cause the longer you are unemployed, the more difficult it is (to find a job),” she said. “A future employer sees you out of the workforce, and they say why were you the one who got laid off?”

At least she doesn’t have to worry about health insurance, she said. Recently married, she is eligible for health coverage under her new husband’s insurance policy.

Many community colleges have scaled back or even eliminated their adult education programs because of a lack of state funding — only to have a stop-gap bill approve funding later in the year — too late for programs that already had been canceled.

At Heartland, the number of adult education/GED classes was cut and class sizes were increased.

Cross said just like businesses hit with an economic downturn, colleges and universities need to “reorganize, reprioritize and think differently.”

Cross said, “I don't want to minimize how important it is to have a budget,” but he thinks the schools will emerge strong, adding, “I hope we see this as a blip.”

— The Southern's Stephanie Esters contributed to this story

LENORE SOBOTA writes for The (Bloomington) Pantagraph, a Lee Enterprises sister publication of The Southern Illinoisan.


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