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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.

Funding Higher Education, Funding Illinois’ Future

Rich Egger
The Fund Our Future Illinois coalition has started a postcard campaign to push for funding for MAP grants.

A coalition of education, labor, and non-profit organizations is urging the governor and legislative leaders to cut the cost of higher education for students by providing more funding for its colleges and universities.

“In the state of Illinois, on average, we’re losing approximately 29,000 to 30,000 students every year. They’re going to institutions in other states because it’s less expensive for them to go there, believe it or not,” said John Miller of the Fund Our Future Illinoiscoalition.

“When we lose students out, not only does it take revenue away from the institutions, but it harms the long-term economic stability of the state. These students are then recruited by companies in those states and they may never return.  So we’re harming the economic impact back into the state of Illinois for the long-term future.”

Miller, who is also President of the University Professionals of Illinois - Local 4100, said the coalition’s original mission upon forming last spring was to battle Governor Bruce Rauner’s proposed 30% funding cut for higher education.  Lawmakers eventually approved a budget that cut higher education funding by 6.5% -- which Miller said is also unacceptable.  That budget was ultimately vetoed by the governor.

MAP Grants

One of the coalition's current projects is to secure funding for the Monetary Award Program, commonly referred to as MAP grants.

Credit Rich Egger
John Miller

The state has yet to provide MAP grant funding this fiscal year. Many colleges and universities loaned the money to students for the fall semester, anticipating the state would reimburse the institutions once a budget was approved.  But there is still no state budget and still no funding for MAP grants, and some schools have indicated they cannot afford to front the money for the spring semester.

The Fund Our Future Illinois coalition has started a postcard campaign urging lawmakers and the governor to fund MAP grants.

“We have postcards being signed by students and faculty and community members across the entire state. Many of our community colleges have engaged in it. Certainly all of our public universities are engaged into it,” said Miller, who estimated around 10,000 postcards were signed during the fall semester. He said the campaign will resume during the spring semester.

Miller said more than 130,000 low-to-moderate income students are receiving MAP grants valued at a total of $390 million.

Illinois’ Budget Problems

Miller said the state could come up with funding for MAP grants and for higher education in general through revisions to its antiquated revenue structure.  He suggested the state implement a graduated income tax and a millionaire’s tax, the latter of which was supported by voters in a non-binding referendum in the November, 2014 election.

He also criticized Governor Rauner for refusing to sign a state budget until Illinois lawmakers approve his Illinois Turnaround agenda.

“It has nothing to do with the budget,” Miller said. “Get our universities funded. Get our health providers funded. Get our human service providers and our students funded.  And stop using those as political pawns to pass non-related legislation.”

He believes communities across the state are being harmed by the absence of funding for higher education.

“Over 55,000 people are employed by our universities throughout the state. In western Illinois, in Macomb, the university is the biggest employer in the area. And any harm has a significant impact on the small businesses that we have.”

He said it’s “terrifying” to have gone halfway through the fiscal year without a state budget.

Rich is TSPR's News Director.