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The "Crisis of Confidence" series is a multi-year effort by the Tri States Public Radio to document the impact the two-year state budget impasse had on Western Illinois University and the ongoing recovery efforts at WIU. State support for public higher education institutions has been steadily declining in Illinois for more than a decade. But the issue was compounded, during the state's historic two-year budget impasse during Fiscal Years '16 and '17 which left public colleges and universities with little state financial support. At Western Illinois University, that drastic cut in state appropriations resulted in significant budget cuts, employee furloughs, and layoffs.

New School Year Yet No State Money for WIU

Rich Egger

Public universities in Illinois find themselves in an odd situation.  A new school year is underway but the state has no budget for higher education, which means there is no state money coming in to the public institutions.

During an interview with Tri States Public Radio, Western Illinois University President Jack Thomas was asked about the potential impact of the state budget impasse.

TSPR:  Do you know how long Western can continue to make payroll as long as the state does not have a budget?

President Thomas: That is a good question. We’re looking at that as we speak.

TSPR:  Anything more specific?

President Thomas:  At this time I can’t give you anything specific.

Dr. Thomas said the university is getting by for now with reserve funds and tuition payments.  He said the state still owes WIU $6.6 million for the fiscal year that ended June 30. He anticipates that payment will be made.

Rich Egger
WIU President Jack Thomas in his office on August 20, 2015.

As for the current fiscal year, Thomas said it’s still unclear what level of funding WIU should expect. He said state support for Western dropped over the past 13 years from $62 million to around $51 million.  He hopes to avoid a further reduction.

“We’ve taken our share of those decreases,” Thomas said. “And right now, as I told the legislators in my testimonies before the House and the Senate, we’re at the bare bone. We’ve made various cuts across the board and we cannot continue to do that.

“As I stated in my testimonies, when I was asked what could we endure, I said, ‘Zero-percent.’”

Thomas said Western has made a minimum amount of lay-offs and will do all it can to avoid making cuts that jeopardize its academic programs.

Thomas said these are serious budgetary times for all public colleges and universities in Illinois, but added this is also an opportunity to make WIU stronger. 

“I think it will help to shape this university into what it should become in the future,” he said.

Thomas asked the university community to remain patient and keep in mind WIU has been through tough times before.  And he said Western has accomplished much despite the declining state support.

“We continue to do well in U.S. News and World Report, we moved up in the rankings. In the Princeton Review we moved up in the rankings. All since 2011. We continue to be ranked as a “Military Friendly” institution by G.I. Jobs magazine and a “Best for Vets” by Military Times magazine,” Thomas said.

“So we’re doing something right.”

Enrollment Down Again

Despite the accolades, Western projects enrollment will drop again this school year.  “We’re going to be slightly down this year,” said Thomas, but he believes WIU will avoid a huge enrollment decrease because of programs such as the Building Connections Mentoring Program, which provides a mentor for every freshman on campus.

“When we put that program in place, our retention rate went from 62% to 72% from freshman to sophomore,” Thomas said.

He said WIU is also holding more recruitment fairs, has widened its recruiting territory, and is visiting more schools. In addition, he said Western is the only university in Illinois that locks in the price of room & board, tuition, and fees for four years.

Thomas said the state needs to do a better job of convincing graduating high school students to attend college in Illinois instead of another state. He said only 66% remain in-state, which he said makes Illinois the second largest exporter of students in the nation.

Rich is TSPR's News Director.