Senator Pat McGuire (D-43), met with college officials and trustees on Oct. 4 at Southeastern Illinois College during a tour of area colleges.
The senator, who is the chairperson for the Illinois Higher Education Committee, heard concerns regarding higher education funding and what SIC has been doing to maximize funds received. Officials also discussed how proactive the college has been in years leading up to the budget crisis, the financial efficiencies made over the last several years in response, and the current funding formula model, which is set at about 40 percent funding by the state.
“We were only paid four-tenths of our expected funding last year and we have only received one-third our funding for this year,” said David Wright, SIC Executive Dean of Business Affairs.
SIC President Jonah Rice, Ph.D. also noted that around 30 percent of SIC’s district encompasses the Shawnee National Forest, which means much of the college’s tax base is federal land, which brings in zero local tax dollars. Unlike other units of government, community colleges are not given federal payment in lieu of taxes (PILT). Rice explained this is one of the factors as to why the college is so reliant upon state funding.
Wright went on to discuss the funding levels the college has received to date, and the funding needed to continue operations without borrowing.
“We need another stopgap payment in the spring” said Wright. “Even if we get a spring stopgap payment like the fall payment we just received, we will be nearly a million dollars in the hole for this year.”
In response, McGuire said there may be no higher education budget for a couple more years, only perhaps stopgap funding.
Officials were able to share some good news with the senator as levels of enrollment over the past five years have dropped minimally (only 4.9 percent) despite a population decrease in the district. SIC had the smallest five-year decline of any college in the region with the average enrollment drop in Illinois in the same time period being around 14.5 percent. In addition, SIC boasts fewer administrators and more full time instructors than most colleges. Officials also shared strong performance data in terms of completion, retention, and nursing pass rates.
“We run a quality, lean operation due to years of efficiency management and re-engineering departments,” said Rice.
When asked what the college needs first, the answer from Wright was stopgap funding for January through June of 2017.
“We can handle situations better when we can plan for them,” said Wright. “We need funding stability from the state so we can more accurately plan ahead to prevent a financial crisis.”
While many look to tuition hikes, that is not a total answer, Rice said.
“When the average combined household income for our region is $34,000, community colleges cannot make up for lack of state dollars with tuition,” said Rice. “We have to remain affordable.”
SIC has the state’s fourth lowest tuition rate. Increased educational cooperation that is fair to all is a strategy SIC has used with Rend Lake College and Shawnee Community College.
“We’ve worked together on fair and equitable models with low to no overhead. Necessity is the mother of invention. SIC is in better fiscal shape than some of the other larger colleges in the region, but if the state doesn’t get a budget with revenue behind it very soon, no one will fare well when faced with such shortfalls,” Rice surmised. “And that’s bad for business in this state if we are hampered to educate the workforce of tomorrow.”
Rice and McGuire discussed more predictable funding models, including compact funding agreements, among other ideas for the future of higher education in Illinois.