Because of the state’s budget impasse, public universities in Illinois have not gotten any of their usual appropriations. At Northeastern Illinois University, in Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood, students are trying to figure out what they’re going to do if the school closes-- and that uncertainty threatens to make the school’s finances even shakier.
Viable alternatives for students are scarce. Asked what attracted them to the school, many Northeastern students gave similar answers:
“It was cheap,” Michael Tan Liao said.
“The tuition was reasonably priced,” Shamsa Islam said. “And it’s a commuter school, so I can stay at home, and I don’t have to pay for dorms.”
“I saw Northeastern as being cost-effective for myself,” Antonio Benevides said. “Especially since I always have been working two jobs all my life.”
(Students also talked a lot about diversity, when describing what they liked about the school. But the economics were what drew them.)
Northeastern doesn’t have the cheapest tuition in the state, but it’s close— and the savings on housing make a big difference. So do the flexible hours for students who work.
But relatively-affordable is not the same as easy
“It's tough,” said Elizabeth Nieto, a senior. “It's tough having to work like two jobs and have an internship for your class and doing a minor into a major and aside from that wanting to be involved in school beyond an academic point.”
Nieto is president of the psychology club, and creating a Child Advocacy Club.
She says other students have it tougher-- because she knows the school will be open long enough for her to graduate this summer.
Non-seniors aren’t so sure.
For instance, there’s Ruby David— English major, age 23, born in India, raised in Skokie, who works at McDonald’s.
“For now, we’re being assured that it’s going to stay open through summer and fall, which is great,” David said. “But after that, what’s going to happen? Everybody’s already talking about finding alternatives. Like, I don’t want to think about it right now— so, you’ve got to stay optimistic, you know?”
Northeastern’s president, Sharon Hahs, says she faces a dilemma in describing the school’s finances.
“If you say you don’t have the money, the students don’t come,” Hahs said. “If the students don’t come, you have less money.”
On the other hand, she says, if she doesn’t sound the alarm, other decision-makers could get the wrong impression.
“Then it’s telling the Springfield folks, Legislature and Governor, ‘We didn’t need the money anyway,’ she said. “Which is not true.”
Northeastern is not alone. Among state schools, it’s not even the worst off. Chicago State University sent layoff notices to staff in late February. Reviewers from its accreditation agency are on-campus this week to determine whether the school still meets the agency’s requirements.
Last week, Western Illinois University announced that faculty and workers would be required to take extra time off—without pay—starting this summer.
“Oh, we are like 15 minutes from that point,” Hahs said. “We are planning, we are figuring out— How does one do this?—since we’ve never done it. How does one even manage the payroll process?”
James Applegate, the executive director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education, is quick to cite statistics about things going right at Illinois universities. Completion rates, for instance—they’re good, he says.
“I say all that in order to say: This is not a broken system,” Applegate said. “At least, it wasn’t.”
Asked how long until the damage to state universities becomes permanent, Applegate offers a metaphor.
“They are on the edge of the cliff,” he said. “When they will actually lose their balance and fall off the cliff, it’s difficult to say a date.”
However, he thinks some schools might close up shop for the summer.
Meanwhile, students aren’t the only ones looking at their alternatives.
Angela Sweigart-Gallagher, a theater professor at Northeastern, says the latest rumors are that furloughs—mandatory, unpaid days off—could mean a 20 percent pay cut, effective immediately.
“I could not afford to pay my mortgage at a 20 percent reduction of my pay,” she said.
Her husband is an artist, and she says his income won’t bridge the gap. If the rumored 20 percent cut becomes a reality, “We’re going to start looking for an out,” she said. “Looking for another job, moving out of the state.”
As of Monday afternoon, the school had made no official announcement on furloughs. Public Relations Director Mike Hines said he had no information on how big a pay cut the furloughs would mean.
Dan Weissmann is a reporter for WBEZ. Follow him @danweissmann.