Most of the more than 4,000 students at Chicago State University on the city’s south side are black, have low incomes and, like their school, face often uncertain paths toward better futures.
A $600 million stopgap spending measure for Illinois public universities that Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner signed last week helped put the campus on firmer financial ground, but even the $20 million for Chicago State wasn’t enough to keep the school from laying off more than 300 employees, about a third of its workforce.
Even with its uncertain future, Chicago State represents the best chance forward for many of its students, they and experts agree.
Here is a closer look at the school and the problems it faces:
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Problems, old and new
The list of the questions facing the school on Chicago’s South Side has grown since last summer, when the state stopped providing money to its nine public universities due to the budget stalemate. The school at one point talked about possible closure, declared a form of academic bankruptcy and sent layoff notices to all of its employees before it cut the 300 jobs on Friday.
Before the budget mess, Chicago State was already considered the worst-performing of the state’s public universities.
Only 21 percent of its students earn a degree within six years, according to the U.S. Department of Education. At Eastern Illinois University, that figure is 60 percent. And at the University of Illinois’ flagship campus, it is 84 percent.
State audits have regularly turned up financial mismanagement in recent years, and enrollment has declined.
Chicago State is also more reliant on the state than any of Illinois’ other public universities, getting about 30 percent of its funding through annual appropriations. That doesn’t include the financial aid that most of its students use to help pay tuition — money that’s also held up by the state budget situation.
Unique student body, campus
The student body doesn’t look like those found at the other state universities. Three-quarters of the students are black and almost three-quarters are women. More than half are 25 or older and many, if not most, have transferred from other schools after struggling elsewhere.
“I’ve seen lots of them come unprepared for college work,” said Robert Bionaz, an associate professor of history. “These are bright people who in many cases have seen life intervene.”
Bionaz is among the many people on campus who roll their eyes about some of the campus’ low-slung, tan buildings, many based on geometric shapes that can yield odd floor plans.
But the campus tucked into a part of the city with chronically high levels of unemployment and crime represents a chance, sometimes the last chance, for many students.
“Honestly, this is like people’s last resort, last choice,” said Denzel Tucker, a senior physics major who transferred to Chicago State from the Illinois Institute of Technology, where a year of tuition is more than $40,000. Chicago State charges $6,000 a year.
What does Chicago State get right?
While Bionaz is a regular critic of school administration, he says measures like low graduation rates miss the point.
“I had a woman who had a full-time job in law office downtown. It took her eight and a half years to graduate,” he said citing a case that he says illustrates the unusual nature of the school’s students.
And Chicago State does graduate students — as many as 1,000 a year in recent years, like those in dark-green gowns who collected diplomas Thursday.
Alternatives, even within the city, are few and often unrealistic for students at the school, said University of Illinois associate professor of higher education Jennifer Delaney. She grew up on the South Side.
Private schools like Roosevelt University in downtown Chicago are not far away, but Roosevelt’s $28,000 annual tuition means it isn’t an option for most. And even the cheaper options in the city are less likely to work out simply because they are not on the South Side, where many of the students are from, she said.
“To have to travel to the North Side of the city, it’s sometimes a large enough barrier that people don’t continue,” she said.