News Local/State

Illinois Issues: Budget Impasse Blurs Future For The Class of 2016

At a college graduation ceremony, new graduates throw their caps into the air.

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High school seniors who plan to go on to college should be finalizing their dorm and roommate choices about now. But this year, those decisions aren’t about who brings the mini-fridge. With a total lack of state funding for higher education, it’s about which schools and programs will be fiscally stable, or whether to go at all.

David Marseille has the resources to help his daughter, who plans to major in business, pay for a four-year university education. He’s also made a science of helping her choose where to go to college. He looked at the national reputations of each campus’ business school, the honors program, the curriculum, the ACT scores and grade point averages of admitted freshmen. The family spent two summers visiting campuses to compare classrooms, dorms, and campus amenities to narrow down the choices. Marseille’s daughter applied to a half dozen schools, and got accepted at all six.

May 1 is a big day for the members of the high school Class of 2016 hoping to attend a university. Normally, by this time, they’ve received acceptance letters and award letters offering financial aid and scholarship. They are also locking in their choice of dormitory and roommates. After May 1, any offer not accepted can be offered to another student on a waiting list. But this year is different.

Illinois universities are sending out award letters with asterisks next to the grant amounts and footnotes like, “contingent upon state funding,” leaving families wondering how much they’re really going to have to pay for college in Illinois, given the current political gridlock that has held up funding for higher education for nearly the entire current fiscal year. It’s the kind of small print that can change a kid’s future — and not just the kids relying on need-based grants. 

As Marseille’s daughter considered her choice, somewhere along the way her final decision-making process became less about campus vibe and more about what he calls the “pall or cloud of financial questions” about the state budget.

“That became the driving consideration over the winter when all the news agencies started to run reports on the fact that the public Illinois universities were undergoing financial stress because they didn’t get the funding they wanted,” Marseille says.

10 Months Without State Funding

In fact, public colleges and universities have gotten zero funding. The state is in its 10th month without a budget, thanks to a stalemate between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and the Democratic leaders in the legislature. Public universities are owed millions of dollars in state aid and reimbursements. Schools have cut programs, announced hiring freezes and laid off staff. Chicago State University — the school most reliant on state aid — has taken steps to prepare to close at the end of this month.

So with his daughter finishing her senior year at Lemont High School, Marseille, who manages commercial litigation for an insurance company, began tracking what percentage of each school’s budget came from the state. “You can imagine that if you have a shortfall of one-third of your budget fiscally, that’s going to interrupt your operations as a going concern,” he says. “And we’re starting to see the ramifications of that going on right now.”

The financial situation threatens more than just professors’ salaries and students’ stipends. In February, the Higher Learning Commission, which accredits colleges and universities, asked all 57 public schools to submit information about financial health, expected fall enrollment and any anticipated layoffs. At the same time, the HLC president Barbara Gellman-Danley sent letters to Rauner and legislative leaders warning that “the lack of state funding is putting Illinois colleges and universities at serious risk and jeopardizing the future of students.”

Marseille says he worries that if “the state can’t even tell the public universities what their funding for the 2015-2016 school year might be, if that’s completely in flux,” then the Higher Learning Commission might determine that they are unable to credibly plan for the future -- a key requirement for accreditation.

A Letter To The Leaders

In late January and again in February, Marseille laid out the dire situation in eloquently worded and annotated letters to Rauner, Secretary of Education Beth Purvis, and the four legislative leaders. He suggested the funding fiasco would inevitably affect Illinois schools’ rankings in popular media like the U.S. News and World Report. He pointed out that top-notch students will choose to go elsewhere, further dropping the average ACT scores of state schools and making them less competitive.

Only Rauner’s office acknowledged receipt of his letters. And even then, it was with formulaic responses. Marseille could’ve rolled those letters up, corked them into bottles and flung them in the Mississippi River for all the good they did.

Last month, he says he “allowed” his daughter to accept an offer from her first choice, Illinois State University. But because the state budget situation is so fragile, he hasn’t yet allowed her to decline a comparable offer from Ball State University.

“We are leaving the door open at this Indiana institution, where I otherwise would’ve probably said: Tell them we’re not going,” he says.

Stark Choices For Low-Income Students

The Marseille family is among the fortunate ones. Their personal finances — combined with their daughter’s high GPA and ACT score — afford them the luxury of options for her education. Families without such resources are counting on grants from the state’s Monetary Award Program, known as MAP, to pay part of their tuition.

Rachel Georgakis is the college and career counselor at Fenton High School, which serves the Chicago suburbs of Wood Dale and Bensonville. Slightly more than half of the school’s students live in poverty. Among Fenton High’s Class of 2015, about 74 percent represented the first generation of college attendees in their families. The current budget crisis has changed the way Georgakis counsels the 60 students who qualify for MAP grants in Fenton High’s Class of 2016.

“Right now, many of our students are bringing in their financial aid award letters from the colleges that they’ve been accepted to. And what we’re seeing on the letters this year is that there’s an asterisk next to the MAP grant amount,” Georgakis says. She says different schools are wording the footnote tied to that asterisk in different ways. But the gist is that the award is subject to the General Assembly approving funding for MAP and Rauner signing it into law, an outcome that seems less than bankable under the current unprecedented gridlock in Springfield.

This isn't the first time that cuts to the MAP program or uncertainty over how much funding will ultimately be approved has made getting MAP support a shaky prospect. But the lack of MAP funding for the current fiscal year raised the possibility that college students will eventually have to repay  grants they already spent if the state never comes through with the money. Considering that possibility, counting on the grant seems an especially risky bet for this year's class of graduating seniors.

“Whether or not there’s an asterisk on the award letter, I’ve been advising students to ask colleges about that MAP grant, because if there isn’t an asterisk, I worry that students think that’s automatically going to be there for them. And there’s no guarantee that that’s the case,” Georgakis says. She has had to switch her script from telling Fenton students that hard work will be rewarded to telling them that perhaps all that work was for naught.

“It breaks my heart, because we send the message to our students all the time that college is what you are working for in high school, and education can be a way out of poverty, and a way to improve the things in your life and to not have to worry about money the way that you may have had to,” she says. “And when they don’t see the leaders in our state doing that for them, I worry that students are going to start to get a message that college isn’t for them.”

Choices Dictated By The Budget Impasse

Chad Adams, the principal at Sullivan High School in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood, says he is already seeing that trend among his seniors. 

“I’m hearing more of two-year colleges or ‘I’m going to go to a trade school,’ or ‘I’m going to be a mechanic because college is going to hit my family too hard and also hit me in debt and loans.’ So, I’m hearing more of that,” Adams says. 

Sullivan High School is a Chicago Public School with a diverse population. More than 40 languages are spoken at Sullivan, according to Adams. The student body is about 40 percent Hispanic, 40 percent African American (with a large portion of students from East and West Africa) and includes a significant percentage of students from Nepal. Virtually every student is poor enough to qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Elizabeth Bieze, a counselor at Sullivan High School, says these students have been counting on the state to provide MAP grants and other forms of aid.

“This time last year, knowing that May 1 is decision day, I felt like we had a lot more students that got their award letters, it was seemingly a for-sure thing, and they had made their decision already by this point,” she says.

And this year? “I think the only people that I know who know for sure what they’re doing next year either have some sort of large outside scholarship, or they’re going into the military.”

City Colleges of Chicago offered to waive tuition and fees for any high school graduate with at least a 17 on the ACT and a GPA of 3.0 or above. Bieze says it provides a fall-back for students who can’t afford college without MAP. But for students who have been dreaming of attending a four-year university, the prospect of settling for a local community college is disappointing.  

 “I mean I literally, right before you called, was helping a student draft an email to a financial aid office to appeal her award letter, and she’s the valedictorian of her class,” Bieze says. “So when your valedictorian, with a 28 ACT, can’t afford to go to school, that’s a big problem.” 

 That valedictorian is Danuta Chlebek, who immigrated to the U.S. legally at age 5. Her father is a seasonal construction worker. Her mother stays home with Danuta’s only sibling — a new baby brother. Whatever financial help the family could’ve provided 18-year-old Danuta is now going toward the baby. Unlike Dave Marseille’s daughter, she isn’t weighing campus amenities. For her, only one thing matters.

“The most I’m worried about is the money, really. I’m sure I’ll be able to find my place wherever I go, but I can’t decide on some school that I know I can’t afford,” she says. “Even though I’ve gotten accepted to a lot of places, the awards packet has not been very positive. Some of them have very minimal like $2,000 per year even though the school may cost $15,000.”

She has an offer from Augustana College, but the award letter lists only estimates, even for the MAP. At a time when Chlebek thought she would have a good idea about where she would be headed in the fall, the only thing she knows for sure is that she doesn’t want to take out student loans. Bieze says Chlebek’s limbo is “the most negative side of the college process” she’s experienced in her counseling career.

“It’s devastating really, day in and day out when she leaves my office super upset, because I don’t know how to help, honestly,” Bieze says. 

Efforts To Fund MAP

In February, Democratic lawmakers passed a bill that would fund MAP for the current fiscal year. Rauner quickly vetoed it, citing the fact that the state doesn’t have the money to pay for it. The constant rallies and marches current college students stage at the Capitol, the petitions and letters and postcard campaigns, the panels of college presidents and poignant pleas from student witnesses — all of these are batted away by lawmakers who can point to lavish spending on administrators, financial shenanigans at certain institutions, and Illinois state schools’ already high tuition costs compared to neighboring states. A 2014 story in the Champaign News-Gazette pointed out that an Illinois resident could spend less to get a flagship university education in Minnesota, Ohio, Missouri or Nebraska, even paying out-of-state tuition, than it would cost to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 

Those tuition increases are due, at least in part, to the fact that state appropriations for higher education operations and grants have fallen by about 36 percent over the past 15 years. But legislators still feel like they’re shoveling mounds of money into academia because the percentage of the higher education budget that is going to the State Universities Retirement System has climbed since 2006 — that share has drastically spiked over the last few fiscal years. 

The increase happened because lawmakers and governors signed off on skipping or reducing payments in the past, and a decades-old plan to try and catch up on the state’s pension debt seriously back-loaded the payments. 

In the past few months, Rauner has been critical of the amount the state is paying on retirement costs for employees in higher education. He says it is eating up most of the tuition paid by students, and some of that money should instead go to the direct costs of instruction. 

Darren Lubotsky, an economics professor at the University of Illinois Chicago, says ignoring why the pension payments  are what they are today is like not paying your credit card charges for dining out for a year. When you finally pay the accumulated total and interest, and you realize it’s equal to your monthly rent payment, saying “Look, I pay as much to eat out as I do to live in this apartment” would be false, he says.

“They’ve sort of picked a period of time where the state was actually putting more money into the pension fund, which we think is a good thing,” Lubotsky says. “And so of course spending on the pension fund is going to be growing at a fast rate, because they’re catching up on payments that they had missed in the past.” 

A Growing "Out-Migration"

Meanwhile, there’s another cost piling up that almost no one in the Statehouse is talking about: In the fall of 2014, Illinois attracted 17,073 college students from other states, leaving us with a net “out-migration” of 16,623, second only to New Jersey among the six states in the nation that lose more college students than they attract, according to the Digest of Education Statistics. Illinois has held this dubious ranking for years — long before Rauner was elected governor, before “budget impasse” became the state’s unofficial motto, before MAP grants and all other institutional funding was canceled, before the Higher Learning Commission began warning of potential to lose accreditation. It’s unlikely that these developments will do anything but accelerate the departures of more Illinois students.

David Marseille, the dad who hasn’t yet allowed his daughter to decline her offer from Ball State, graduated from the University of Illinois in 1984, “the Rose Bowl year,” and it capped off a splendid college experience. “If you’d asked me 10 years ago, ‘Where do you want your kid to go?’ I would’ve said the University of Illinois.”

Not anymore. He sees his alma mater’s increasing reliance on international students who pay full tuition; he sees the legislative impasse jeopardizing accreditation, making his daughter’s choice more complicated than it should be. And he sees his younger daughter — currently a high school freshman, who tagged along on all the college visits with her big sister — now hoping to attend Purdue University. He sees what that means for his family.

“If a student leaves the state of Illinois and goes to some other institution, chances are they’re going to get a job at whatever state they went to. And you know, there definitely is a linking up of potential spouses,” he says. “But there’s also the issue of making lifelong friends. I mean, college cultivates relationships that last a lifetime. And so if you look at all those variables, and then you look at the history of how long we’ve been here — and I’ve been here my whole life — we are not enthusiastic at all about the prospect of seeing either of our daughters go out of state. Because it puts in play the fact they may never come back.”