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Students at Prairie State College in Illinois

Prairie State College

For more than a year, Illinois’s community colleges and public universities have been struggling to operate financially as legislators in the state have remained deadlocked over a state budget.

Last week Governor Bruce Rauner, a Republican, passed a short-term, “stop-gap” budget to offer some relief for the state’s institutions. The deal also repays colleges for grant money they distributed to students who participate in the state’s Monetary Award Program. But despite the infusion of some money, many of the colleges are cutting their budgets, raising tuition and looking at borrowing in an effort to stay afloat.

“It’s difficult because, with a stop-gap budget people breathed a sigh of relief and people think we got funded,” said Terri Winfree, president of Prairie State College, in Chicago Heights. “It’s important for the world to know that we operate as lean as possible and we want to serve our students … when headlines say a stop-gap budget was passed and they put this high number out there … of that high number, the large majority of that is going to universities and not community colleges.”

The state’s universities often partner with its community colleges. But the two-year institutions serve students with the most need, said Winfree, yet receive the least amount of funding. Even before the latest money crunch, Illinois community colleges on average received just 5 percent of their total funding from the state.

Prairie State and other community colleges in the state have been hit hard by the latest budget crisis.

For example, under the short-term budget deal, Prairie State learned earlier this month that it would receive about $2 million. But for the past year and a half, Winfree said the college should have received about $7.5 million from the state.

In comparison, the University of Illinois system will receive about $350 million from the state in 2017, which is about 55 percent of the $650 million it received in 2015.

“The short-term spending plan is a milepost, but does not bring us to the finish line,” said Tim Killeen, they system’s president, in a news release. “We will continue to advocate for a full fiscal 2016 and 2017 state budget to support our excellence and ensure the long-term stability that is crucial to plan our future.”

Meanwhile, Chicago State University had to lay off 300 nonfaculty employees because of the budget crisis.

The state’s money problems also have affected its community colleges’ credit. Moody’s recently downgraded 15 of Illinois’s 48 community colleges because of the impasse. Twenty-three of the colleges now have “negative” outlooks and could see additional downgrades.

Joliet Community College this month cut $1 million in spending to cope with limited state funding. The college will receive about $3.3 million under the short-term measure. Joliet also increased its tuition by $10 per credit hour.

“We continue to face funding challenges with the lack of a state budget, but at the same time we remain focused on keeping education affordable,” said Judy Mitchell, interim president of Joliet, in an email.

The college also had to restrict out-of-state travel, close a Small Business Development Center and freeze hiring for several positions.

Back at Prairie State, administrators took similar steps. The college increased tuition by $12 per credit hour and did not offer classes to 26 adult education adjunct instructors, Winfree said. The college offered early retirement options to some employees and closed a children’s learning center. Prairie State also is considering taking on more debt.

“We’ve been doing a lot of shuffling to preserve as best as we can. As far as classrooms go, we’ve condensed schedules and we’re not offering as many varieties of sessions,” she said. “I hear a lot about administrative bloat, but the community colleges are very lean already …. We’ve been cutting and cutting for years, but to now take that and just give us a fraction … we’re losing people who are starting to take positions elsewhere.”

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