Legislators, college students, educators and others called on Springfield Tuesday to pass a spending bill that would fund community colleges and MAP grants, if not all universities.
The Illinois Coalition to Invest in Higher Education held a rally at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Tuesday to advocate for solutions for higher education funding from the state. Illinois universities and community colleges have not received their funding since the state budget crisis began in July. Dillon Santoni, the student trustee representing SIUE, hosted state Rep. Jay Hoffman and Sen. James Clayborne, as well as students and leaders from Southwestern Illinois College, Lewis & Clark Community College and Greenville College.
“None of these things are about being partisan or casting aspersions,” said SIU President Randy Dunn. “It’s rather to say we have to come together and get this work done ... We’re seeing this incremental dismantlement, this piece by piece taking apart colleges and universities that just 20 years ago were held up as among the best community college and public university systems in the country.”
Santoni said the state’s investment in colleges, particularly the MAP grants given to low-income students, are an investment in the future of Illinois. He said if the state allows its universities to fail or close because of lack of funding, more college students will leave the state for their education and likely decline to return.
Greenville College President Ivan Filby called it a “brain drain” bleeding students out of the state. He said Chicago State University is facing an inability to make its payroll next month, and other colleges are nearing the edge of the cliff as they continue to function without funding.
In recent weeks, Chicago State University was the first to announce it would not be able to make its payroll in March if funding continues to be withheld. Eastern Illinois University has begun layoffs of 200 employees, and students are protesting at some campuses, calling for the state to fix the funding crisis.
SIU President Randy Dunn said the SIU system is in a better position than most, and can hold out until the end of the fiscal year on June 30. SIU also has preemptively cut 9 percent from its budget in anticipation of whatever cuts the state imposes, he said. However, he said, they cannot continue indefinitely without receiving any funding from the state.
“We’re all approaching that cliff,” he said.
SIUE student body president Madeline McCune pointed out that since the state budget crisis halted renovations on SIUE’s Science Building, the university theater is being used as a lecture hall for science classes, as that was the only major lecture hall on campus. The funds for the Science Building project were allocated and dispensed years ago, but as management of the project falls under a state agency, it has been on hold since July. Air conditioning and heat are pumped into the building through long flexible tubes, as its internal systems are offline.
Gabbie Hill and Larissa Harrington, of Greenville College, said they both receive MAP grants, and are first-generation college students: the first in their family to go to college. They said the MAP grants made it possible for them to afford college, while a representative from the Illinois Association of College Admission Counseling said the grant is often “the difference-maker” in whether a student can continue his or her education.
“We are told that the American Dream is possible if we work hard,” Harrington said. She said she wanted to live by that philosophy, and worked hard to earn a 3.7 GPA, earning scholarships and the MAP grant. Without the latter, however, she said she didn’t know what she would do.
“That’s $5,000 that I don’t have,” Harrington said. “Keep your promise to the students of this state ... State legislators have to act with integrity on this issue. They keep telling us education is so important. If it’s so important, why aren’t you funding it?”
SIUE student Paige Cooper said she was grateful that SIUE extended MAP coverage despite not receiving its promised funding from the state. “I am not just some ‘use of state funds,’” Cooper said. “If our public institutions can see this, why can’t our state officials?”
Dunn acknowledged some of the criticisms aimed at the higher education system, stating that the universities “need to do our part” to keep costs under control. “There is a need to look at how we can get certain costs under control,” he said. “We are going to play our part to help our beloved state of Illinois solve this crisis. But it’s not on our backs alone.”
Currently there is a bill approved by both houses of the legislature that would provide operational funding for community colleges and fund the MAP grants, most of which were already dispensed by the universities in anticipation of the state’s funding. All speakers urged Gov. Bruce Rauner to sign the bill, even though it doesn’t fund four-year universities.
But Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly said the governor intends to veto the bill because there is no way to pay for it. “He has offered a path toward compromise by agreeing to sign legislation that funds MAP, community colleges and universities tied to ways to pay for these important programs,” Kelly said. “Rather than playing politics with a dead piece of legislation, we urge the Senate to focus on finding real solutions and vote on legislation that would fund MAP grants with a fiscally responsible way to pay for them.”
In previous budget proposals, both the Republican version and the Democratic version included full funding of the MAP grant program. Hoffman said he has served under two Democratic governors and three Republican governors, and he never thought it would get to this stalemate.