Illinois budget impasse—Higher education caught in the crossfire


Sarah Impola

Higher education caught in the crossfire

By Metro Editor and Arts & Culture Reporter

Darren Martin knew he wanted to attend school at Chicago State University because it was the place he spent his summers at 13 years old. Martin came from a single-parent home and, to keep him away from the violence and gangs that plague Chicago’s South Side, his mother enrolled him in the affordable summer programs offered by the school. Now, Martin is in his senior year at the university and set to graduate in the spring as an early childhood education major, if his school is still open then.

“[CSU] pretty much saved me from being in a life of crime and being involved in a life of poverty,” Martin said.

However, CSU and other state colleges are now struggling to survive Illinois’ unique budget problems. 

Illinois has operated without a budget since July 2015. Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Illinois Senate, led by Speaker Mike Madigan, are at odds over the extreme cuts Rauner claims are necessary to reduce the state’s debt. The General Assembly refuses to pass Rauner’s budget, instead passing bills calling for emergency funding in areas such as social services. Rauner has relented on some cuts but refuses to fund state education.

Universities must now make cuts and tap into reserve funds to stay operational and, in some cases, advance students their intended Monetary Award Program grants the state has withheld from them.

According to the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, nearly 130,000 students statewide received MAP grants for the 2014–2015 academic year. Those tens of thousands are going without that money this academic year, which for some may be crucial to continuing their education.

Some public colleges receive more than 30 percent of their funding from the state, forcing them to have to make drastic cuts—like mass faculty and staff layoffs—to remain operational and continue educating students.

At Columbia, the administration decided in February to provide students with the balance of their MAP grants for the 2015–2016 academic year but announced April 4 the school would not fund future grants. Students from colleges across the state remain worried about continuing their education in the Fall and earning their diplomas.


Located on the far South Side of Chicago, Chicago State University has had a history of providing admittance and education to students with low-income backgrounds thanks to lower tuition. Because of such policies, the school has been drastically affected by the current budget stalemate.

On Feb. 26, CSU sent layoff notices to all 900 of its employees, warning of a possible closure. The school lacks financial reserves to cushion its losses, unlike other schools that have found the money elsewhere.

Beyond the layoff notices, Chicago State canceled its spring break to end the semester early.

Some students have hope for the future of their school, but mostly because they have no other choice. Paris Griffin, president of Chicago State’s Student Government Association, said she is anxious about what the school will look like next semester, but she has faith it will remain open.

“I am running out of financial aid; I do have a scholarship, but as of now, [it] will only be able to be used at Chicago State,” Griffin said. “I have one year left, so there’s no school I will be able to transfer to that will accept all of my credits. I may not have to start completely over, but I will have to [do some things] over, and I honestly don’t have the money or resources to do that.”

Griffin said she chose Chicago State because it would allow her to get an education, be involved, work and “still be a great mother” to her young daughter.

Martin told The Chronicle some students live out of their cars on campus because the campus is the safest place for them to be. People who can’t afford rent still come to school, though they are homeless, he added.

“Now where do they go?” Martin asked.


The heart of the economy of Charleston, Illinois, was once Eastern Illinois University, but with the funding problems and cuts at the college, the town can expect to see much less traffic at its businesses and restaurants. 

“[The current state budget problems] make me want to go back to freshman year, so I can actually appreciate all the things my school did offer that are now being taken away,” said Shirmeen Ahmad, student body president at Eastern. 

Eastern’s cuts have caused many programs at the school to be canceled or shrunk including a reduction of the hours that the “Panther Shuttle” bus runs. The library resources were reduced to one desk for the whole student body, according to Ahmad.

Eastern, along with other Illinois colleges, has been struggling to stay afloat because of a change in their investment

ratings. Bond ratings influence how people invest their money.

Eastern—as well as Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago and Northern Illinois University in DeKalb—was rated by Moody’s Investor Service, a financial consultant company, as financial investments barely better than “junk bonds.”

“The downgrade is driven by [Eastern’s] increasing vulnerability to the ongoing state budget impasse given its thin liquidity, declining enrollment and high reliance on state funding,” Moody’s said in a Feb. 24 statement on Eastern’s downgrading. “The ratings incorporate the expectation that [Eastern] will take the necessary actions to cut expenses and manage cash flow to meet all obligations.”

Ahmad called the future of education at Eastern “a big question mark” for students because if the impasse persists, the university will need to make more cuts. Eastern already implemented layoffs of 177 civil service employees March 11 and mandated furlough days—required unpaid time off for faculty and staff—that began the same month.

“A lot of times, even if we don’t have classes, we bombard our professors in their offices,” Ahmad said. “[With the furlough days], we won’t be able to have that at our fingertips anymore, to be able to go to them whenever we need it.” 

Though Eastern students may be unsure about their future, Eastern’s president David Glassman said in a March 23 email that the school will work to keep its doors open to students.

“As the budget delay continues, Eastern will continue to develop contingencies to keep operations moving forward with no interruption in its academic programs,” Glassman said.


 Women make up more than two-thirds of the student body at Governors State University, another public college. It offers “the most affordable university undergraduate tuition rate in the state,” according to the school’s website.

While some schools are resorting to cuts, layoffs and furlough days, other schools, like Governors State, are loaning their students money for their MAP grants, which can be as much as $4,968 per year, while they wait for reimbursement from the state. 

Governors State, located in south suburban University Park, has not only decided to advance MAP grant funds for the upcoming 2016–2017 fiscal year but has also frozen tuition, despite the lack of budget for this current year.

“We do this for educational purposes, so students can enroll without deep financial fears,” said Keisha Dyson, director of marketing and communications at Governors State. “Without state support, GSU has tapped its operating reserves set aside for physical plant repair, maintenance projects and emergency use.”   

Dyson said the school has also enacted a freeze on travel and hiring, and placed a hold on two major projects, including the cafeteria renovation and the purchase of a document imaging system, she added.

Mychael Vanarsdale, president of the Student Senate at Governors State, said he has not recently seen a decline in the quality of GSU’s education but has noticed a change in “student life.” He said though there is no immediate financial impact on students because of the state budget problems, students seem worried about the future.

“Students are less interested in joining student organizations; they’re more focused on working now,” Vanarsdale said.


 With its main campus spread across 64 acres on Chicago’s Northwest Side, Northeastern Illinois University has an enrollment of 10,000 students, almost 60 percent of them minority.  

Like Eastern, Northeastern enacted mandatory furlough days March 14 for all administrative and professional employees to compensate for the loss of operating funds.

Northeastern’s Director of Public Relations Mike Hines said once negotiations have ended with the remaining bargaining units, the furlough program will affect 1,000 full-time employees and save the college $225,000–$250,000 per week.

“[The program and cuts] will carry us all the way to the middle of September, which is when our tuition comes in for fall semester, and then we’ll have that financial boost,” Hines said. 

One of the bargaining units that has yet to conclude negotiations is the University Professionals of Illinois, which represents teachers, so Hines said the cuts and furlough days have yet to affect them, but students are losing resources in other areas.

“When you talk about the furlough days, right now, it’s affecting staff, and so that means some student services have fewer man hours to serve students,” Hines said. “You’re talking about departments like financial aid or health and counseling—things like that.”


Illinois Institute of Technology is a private Chicago college that caters to international students. Half of its enrollment comes from 100 other countries.

While many private institutions have substantial endowments to make up for the loss of state financial aid to students, some schools, like IIT, have only have been able to fund MAP grants for one semester.

IIT originally provided its students with the amount of their Fall 2015 MAP grant balance, but on March 23 informed them they would be required to pay back the amount disbursed to their accounts.

A letter to the institution’s students from the Vice President of Enrollment Michael Gosz stated that students’ accounts will have a hold placed on them until they can repay the amount either in full or through a loan that will accrue interest starting Sept. 1.

The problem with funding MAP grants and then demanding they be repaid is that students who receive grants are ones who have a low income and cannot pay their full tuition to begin with, said senior IIT student James Jerger.

“They’re asking people who are living paycheck to paycheck to pay back this money,” Jerger said. “Like a lot of people, I didn’t have a choice. I took [IIT’s] loan because, in my case, it was for $2,360, [and] I don’t exactly have that kind of money off hand.”


As a senior, it is natural that Martin would be stressed about his impending graduation. He has to find a job and pay school debt he owes. But along with finding ways to substitute his MAP grant, working two jobs, taking care of his mother and keeping up with class work, Martin also must worry about what his school’s closure would mean for his diploma.

“I would have to uproot my life, move to a whole different part of the country just to finish up my collegiate career,” Martin said.

Most Illinois public schools hope to receive restitution from the state to cover their advance of MAP grants, but no one is sure when a budget will be enacted.

But those expecting full restoration of their budgets are likely to be disappointed, according to Dick Simpson, professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The state income tax rate was cut back this year from 5 percent to 3.5 percent, creating a $5 million funding gap that may not be filled if and when a budget is finally passed. The state is still spending that much money as if it will be available, which is not assured, Simpson said.

“If all that money gets spent, it’s conceivable that there wouldn’t be any money for MAP grants, even if we had a budget [in the future],” Simpson said.

The funding cuts are expected to have  lasting effects on higher education.

“The budget impasse will have a long-term effect on higher education throughout Illinois as the public has become skeptical of the state’s commitment to higher education and the security in knowing students in Illinois public colleges and universities will receive a world class education,” Glassman said.

For example, some students may to pursue their options in other states, and some teachers may as well, looking for more secure jobs. Many faculty members may realize if funding is reduced, they would be less likely to receive raises or research grants, Simpson said. Students could find a school out of state where they would surely be awarded better scholarships or grants, he added.

“It’d be a real derogation if this [budget impasse] were to go on another year,” Simpson said. “It’d set university education back 50 years.”