Public Universities Struggle Without State Aid Amid Illinois Budget Crisis

Feb 24, 2016
Originally published on February 24, 2016 6:34 pm
Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

When you hear a headline like state budget standoff, it can be hard to remember that it's not just politics. It can affect average people in big ways. Illinois has been without a budget for eight months. The Republican governor and Democratic lawmakers have been fighting over how to move forward. State spending for many services continues under court order, but there's been no state aid for public universities during this time. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: This is uncharted territory for the 12 public universities in Illinois. Millions of dollars in state aid used to fund operations has been on hold since July. There's also no money for about 125,000 low-income students in the state at both public and private colleges. They were counting on the Monetary Award Program, or so-called MAP grants, to help pay tuition.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Black education is good for your health. Save CSU. Budget or else.

CORLEY: One of the hardest-hit schools is Chicago State University on the city's south side, attended mostly by African-American. Students have blocked traffic on expressways and demonstrated in the front of the State of Illinois Building protesting the budget impasse. At the school student center, Darren Martin, the first in his immediate family to attend college, says a lack of action has many of CSU's 4,700 students worried.

DARREN MARTIN: There are a lot of students here depending on MAP funds. Here at Chicago State, many of us have families. I had to use MAP grants early on in my collegiate degree to get to where I am now.

CORLEY: University spokesman Tom Wogan says about a third of the school's budget - about $39 million - was to come from the state.

TOM WOGAN: Right now, our administration feels that we can likely meet payroll through March, possibly even into April.

CORLEY: Unlike some of the state's larger public school, Chicago State does not have a large endowment to fall back on. Wogan says Chicago State has already made significant cuts, and, despite rumors, there's no intention of shutting the school down. Even so, 19-year-old Cassidy Kepler, a student from Nebraska who came to play on the school's soccer team, says she's leaving Illinois.

CASSIDY KEPLER: We didn't really know that the budget was a problem until after we came back this semester, so it kind of just hit us in the face. Like, we didn't know if we're going to make it to the end of the semester now. And now we don't know if we're going to make it to the end of the year.

CORLEY: Some universities in Illinois are falling back on reserves to operate. Others say they'll be able to cover the MAP grants for students who depend on them. But college presidents, students, faculty and others say time is running out to avoid a full-blown crisis. In a recent budget address to state lawmakers, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner did call for a compromise, but Rauner stuck to his push for what he calls a turnaround agenda for the state, saying any budget must also include reforms.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRUCE RAUNER: Worker's compensation reform and lawsuit reform, mandate relief, consolidation, local control of bargaining and bidding to drive down property taxes. These reforms will provide many billions of dollars every year in government cost savings.

CORLEY: But it's been like a cold war between Rauner and the Democratic-led legislature. House Speaker Mike Madigan says Rauner's reforms have nothing to do with the budget and are designed to weaken unions and lower middle-class wages of Illinois residents.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE MADIGAN: I simply don't subscribe to the governor's economic theory that the government ought to be in the business of lowering the wages and the standard of living of middle-class families and driving injured workers to the welfare rolls or to the emergency room.

CORLEY: Calling the MAP grants an investment in future taxpayers, the legislature approved a bill that would've funded the program and community colleges. Rauner vetoed it, saying it would spend money the state doesn't have. At Chicago State, student David Flynn says the governor and lawmakers should stop playing with people's futures and pass a budget.

DAVID FLYNN: A lot of times in, like, state institutes and state schools, like, people's lives are invested in the school. So if this school was to close, it would be equivalent to me being evicted from my home.

CORLEY: As the budget impasse continues, the accreditation agency which oversees the state's universities and colleges wants them to submit emergency plans showing how they'd help students if their school shuts down. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.