‘Higher Ed Is Facing A Cliff’: After Years Of Disinvestment, Illinois Public Universities Bracing For More COVID-19 Damage

“We thought the [state] budget impasse was bad. We didn’t know it was just bootcamp training for the pandemic,” one higher ed official said.

WBEZ
The Illini Union on the University of Illinois campus in Champaign. The U of I has spent $44 million on reopening so far this fall. Darrell Hoemann / WBEZ
WBEZ
The Illini Union on the University of Illinois campus in Champaign. The U of I has spent $44 million on reopening so far this fall. Darrell Hoemann / WBEZ

‘Higher Ed Is Facing A Cliff’: After Years Of Disinvestment, Illinois Public Universities Bracing For More COVID-19 Damage

“We thought the [state] budget impasse was bad. We didn’t know it was just bootcamp training for the pandemic,” one higher ed official said.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, public university cupboards were already pretty bare.

Two decades of declining state appropriations and repeated financial crisis left schools struggling. The two-year state budget impasse that ended in 2017, when schools limped by with limited state funding, nearly did some schools in.

And now, the pandemic.

“You’ve already used up a lot of what’s in the cupboard, and you’re looking forward to the coming harvest, and disease comes and wipes out your harvest,” said Jim Applegate, former head of the Illinois Board of Higher Education who now teaches at Illinois State University. “It’s not a good situation.”

Officially, state funding for higher ed is flat this budget year. But as the pandemic continues, experts warn its unlikely public universities will survive unscathed. Absent more federal aid, Governor JB Pritzker’s threat of 5% to 10% across-the-board budget cuts could be disastrous for some public universities. The pandemic has created an estimated $6.5 billion dollar budget shortfall in Illinois this year. When there’s economic recessions, higher ed is usually the first to see cuts.

“Higher ed is facing a cliff,” said Jennifer Delaney, a higher education policy professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “We’ve been delayed a bit by the federal stimulus money, but by the start of the year, certainly in next academic year, we’re going to fall off the cliff in terms of the state’s ability to fund higher ed.”

This is especially unwelcome news to regional public universities like Eastern or Western Illinois. Many are still recovering from the budget impasse that forced mass layoffs and pushed a few public universities to the brink of closure. An infusion of money since then by Governor Pritzker was quickly undercut by COVID-19.

“We thought the budget impasse was bad,” Applegate said. “We didn’t know it was just bootcamp training for the pandemic.”

The pandemic hasn’t just hurt revenue streams, but it’s increased costs as well. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has spent $44 million on reopening so far this fall, including on personal protective equipment, quarantine housing and their expansive COVID-19 testing operation.

Illinois State estimates COVID-19 cost about $28 million last fiscal year and expects to exceed that this year. In Chicago, Northeastern Illinois University has lost about $7 million in revenue and has spent $3 million on cleaning supplies, technology for online classes and faculty training. Chicago State has spent about $1 million.

More budget cuts would mean even less money to cover those new expenses. Meanwhile, schools aren’t seeing more tuition dollars coming in. Enrollment stayed fairly flat at most schools this year.

Reduced funding is especially concerning for the public universities that have fewer revenue streams and depend more on state funding. Those are often the schools that educate more low-income and first-generation students.

“If they’re the ones getting the hardest hit by the pandemic, that has an enormous implications for college opportunity for those who need it most and have gotten it least,” Applegate said.

Chicago State faculty, staff, students, and alumni assemble campus in 2018. (Marc C. Monaghan for WBEZ)

At least one college president is already pushing against potential higher education cuts by the legislature.

“Don’t look to higher education,” said Z Scott, president of Chicago State. “We’ve done our part. We have stayed the course.”

Chicago State is the state’s only predominantly Black university and has a $5 million dollar budget deficit this year as they try to serve students from communities most impacted by the pandemic.

“When you look at what has happened in our state to our minority communities, and you look at what investments we can make to actually support the healthy growth of those communities, … it’s education,” Scott said.

But experts say without additional aid from the federal government, like during the 2008 recession, it’ll be a tough ask. Some say the proposed graduated income tax could provide some relief, if approved by Illinois voters this fall election season. Others see the situation as an opportunity to re-think how Illinois funds higher ed. State Sen. Pat McGuire, D-Crest Hill, wants the state to fund higher ed based on what’s proven to work and better support schools serving the neediest students.

“Money is tight and it’s getting tighter,” he said. “We have to make sure every dollar we spend on higher ed is effective.”

McGuire said the idea is gathering steam among lawmakers. The Illinois Legislative Black Caucus is set to discuss new, equitable finding models for higher education at a meeting next week, according to a copy of their agenda provided to WBEZ.

But even if the funding strategy changes, it won’t necessarily produce more money overall for universities. And with no end to the pandemic in sight, it will likely be a while before Illinois’ public universities see a plentiful harvest.

Kate McGee covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @McGeeReports.