It’s been a rough couple of years for Illinois community colleges, from the slashed funds of the budget impasse to concerning enrollment declines. This is the final installment of a three-part series on how these very different schools have stayed afloat by embracing change and, more importantly, putting the "community" in community college.
The Kishwaukee table tennis club's practice is in full swing. They're preparing for a tournament coming up soon.
John Bennett is practicing on the far side of the room; he's been on the team for around a year since moving from Mississippi.
"I was looking on the website, and saw a couple flyers and stuff too, and I was like, you know what, I used to play down in Mississippi a little bit, had a super old table, and it died," he said. "So, when I moved up here I was like, you know what, I think it would be fun."
He's 24 years old and in his last year at Kishwaukee, finishing up his associate degree in electrical engineering. After he's done, he can transfer to NIU or he can use his degree to get a job at a utility company.
It's the sort of customized, bang-for-your-buck experience community colleges brag about -- one they fear is jeopardized by state funding cuts that forced layoffs, scaled back programs, and raised tuition.
"It's the old proverbial three-legged stool," said Jerry Corcoran, president of Illinois Valley Community College. "Once one of those sources of revenue dry up or don't pay their share, it shifts the burden to the other two legs of the stool."
He's talking about the funding model for community colleges -- equal parts local tax dollars, student tuition, and state funding. When that state funding evaporated during the two-year budget impasse, some schools were able to make do without it, while others were caught without that leg to stand on.
For some schools, the uncertainty forced upheaval in administration. Several of those community colleges had new presidents take over during the crisis.
"It framed the future," said Laurie Borowicz. She became president of Kishwaukee College six months into the impasse.
"You always want to learn from the past. It's made us a bit more conservative with our resources. We have a new budgeting model so we don't get caught flat-footed again," she said.
A few presidents, like Borowicz, began their terms either just before or just after layoffs swept through their new campuses. Programs were scaled back, construction projects delayed, and faculty vacancies sat unfilled.
Many, like Kishwaukee, chose to change their budgeting models.
"The way we set off to do that was we removed the volatility of the state funding out of our budget," said Doug Jensen, the president of Rock Valley College.
Their strategy has been "zero-base budgeting" or planning as if the state funding doesn't exist. They also made cuts during the impasse, even in prioritized areas like nursing, but today they're back to a balanced budget.
Others inherited stable situations and weren't impacted as much by the state's issues.
"Our budget is based primarily on our tax base and then tuition," said Diane Nyhammer, vice president of educational affairs at Waubonsee College.
"It's a matter of balancing, ensuring that we're offering everything our community needs, with recognizing the realities of declining enrollment, and what that might mean for the budget because we can't rely on state funding in the way we could in the past," she said.
Local tax dollars aren't enough elsewhere, especially in lower-income or rural parts of the state. Some still count on the state for more than 20 percent of their revenue.
So those schools have had to get creative with funding. They focus on local business partnerships, capital campaigns and internships, so the cost doesn't fall to the students.
"In our particular case, we have a lot of hospitals that help to underwrite the cost of nursing instructors," said Illinois Valley's Dr. Corcoran. Six hospitals in their district have contributed $8,000 per year to help the programs.
"Fundraising has become a critical part of any community college president's job description," said Corcoran.
Over at Sauk Valley College, they've worked with local businesses to help fund their small business development center. They've even partnered with Kish to expand the program, which some colleges had to discontinue during the budget stalemate.
Sauk Valley president David Hellmich says they are now raising money to become a "promise program" community. If accomplished, students in these areas can earn free community college tuition with a mixture of good grades and community service.
"There is all kinds of evidence from promise communities that enrollment can typically grow up to 20 percent," said Hellmich. "But more importantly the economic vitality in the region is transformed."
For the foreseeable future, alternative revenue sources like those will have to supplement the lack of state funding.
Illinois community colleges received 16 percent of their funding from the state last year.
Even with a budget this year, they don't expect to return to the one-third model anytime soon.