Higher Education Leaders Discuss Budget Fears In Springfield

Mar 10, 2016

Illinois lawmakers heard Thursday from an assortment of higher education leaders asking for funding.

Credit State of Illinois

They used terms like “starving,” “dismantling” and “economic suicide” as they tried to persuade state senators to find some way to heal the budget impasse. 

One of the last witnesses was Eric Zarnikow, director of the state agency that runs the Monetary Award Program. MAP grants help needy college kids with tuition.

Zarnikow quoted his mother, who he says always warned him not to eat the seed corn.

"It took me a long time to like figure out what the heck you're talking about, Mom, but it basically is, over the winter, if you eat your seed corn, you have nothing to plant in the spring, and you're doomed," Zarnikow said.

Illinois colleges have gone more than 8 months without state funding.

College presidents say they've cut their budgets to the bone, and students are leaving for out-of-state schools.

Western Illinois University President Jack Thomas warns legislators that higher education is on the verge of collapse without state intervention. Public universities and community colleges like WIU have struggled to make ends meet after not getting state funding due to the continuing budget stalemate.

Thomas says the school is laying off 100 employees and students are leaving for colleges out of state. 

"Individuals want to know whether or not we're going to be open so that they can do four or five years at our institution. And not just those prospective students, our current students are questioning us."

Western Illinois University is one of several universities in the state that was losing students even before the political stalemate.

About half of its students are minorities and about 40 percent are the first in their family to attend college.

Meanwhile, the Southern Illinois University President says the school will remain viable but may be dramatically different if proposed cuts to higher education are enacted in Springfield.

Randy Dunn also testified before a Senate Committee yesterday. He says the crisis is having an impact on recruiting; prospective students and parents aren’t sure whether they’ll be able to finish degrees or receive the support they’ll need.

Dunn says the southern Illinois region knows SIU is in trouble and people there want stability.

“If there’s any question about whether or not we are in crisis, the people within the region, the footprint of southern Illinois, believe that we are,” Dunn said. “And they’re concerned about this great legacy of SIU is about to be lost on their watch.”

Dunn released a memo to SIU staff outlining the cuts that would have to be made if the governor’s proposed 20 percent reduction is enacted. The scenario includes hundreds of jobs lost, classes cut, and programs reduced or eliminated.

  • Dusty Rhodes, Sarah Mueller and Jennifer Fuller contributed to this report.​​