Another Governor Suggests Massive Cuts to Higher Education

February 19th 2015

Mike Vainisi

Illinois' new Governor Bruce Rauner (R) has proposed a huge cut to his state's funding of higher education. The governor has asked the Illinois legislature to approve $387 million cuts, which amount to a 31 percent reduction in funding for state colleges, as he seeks to close Illinois' $6 billion overall budget shortfall.

University officials in Illinois had been warned of "dire" budget cuts back in December, according to report that month from the Springfield Pantagraph. At that time, though, a state university official envisioned a 20-percent cut as a "worst-case" scenario. Yesterday, they found out Rauner will ask for 31 percent in cuts.

This is stark difference from what Rauner said during his campaign for governor. When speaking about the University of Illinois, Rauner said he not only opposed cuts to the university -- saying the status quo of annual cuts was "wrong" -- he also said that he would be in favor of increasing investment.

"The University of Illinois alone has seen a more-than-$80 million cut from its annual appropriation since 2009. That’s wrong. I support increasing investment at the University, as well as improving our overall education system, from early childhood through postsecondary institutions and beyond," said Rauner in an interview with the University of Illinois Alumni Association.

The governor's office did not respond to ATTN for this story when asked about the change of heart.

Since taking office, Rauner has said Illinois' budget conditions were worse than he thought prior to becoming governor.

"Every time we look under the hood, look at different departments, look at different issues, the problems, the deficits, the overspending is more significant than has been discussed in the past. We want to make sure we understand it," Rauner said in an AP story.

There's no doubt that Illinois is facing serious budget problems. In addition to its $6 billion deficit, Illinois has unfunded pension liabilities of $111 billion. Credit rating agencies have responded to these problems by handing the state the lowest credit rating in the country.

University officials in Illinois were surprised that state universities are bearing so much of the fiscal burden.

“Frankly, I'm in a little bit of shock,” said Illinois State University President Larry Dietz in an interview with the Springfield Pantagraph. "A 31 percent cut was never talked about anywhere, at least with the university folks I've talked to.”

Governor Rauner will now take his proposal to Illinois' Democratic-controlled legislature, which must pass a budget before it comes into law.

Illinois is a tough place to be a college student (or the parent of a college student).

Before Rauner took office, Illinois was already at just half the national average in higher education funding, according to Young Invincibles, a non-profit group that tracks state funding of education. The state has the nation's fifth highest in-state tuition for a four-year public college, and, while Illinois spends a lot of money in higher education per student -- at least $9,000 -- much of this spending goes straight to employee pension funds.

Why does this keep happening?

States have been de-funding higher education for a long time. The reason is that it's been a relatively painless cut to make in comparison to other budget priorities like Medicaid, law enforcement, or transportation. The problem for students and their families is that reduced funding generally leads to in higher tuition, as universities have to replace the funding somehow. What makes this a structural problem is that reduced funding is rarely replenished when a state's budget situation improves. Instead, the reduced levels of funding become the new baseline until the next crisis leads to more cuts. For example, forty-eight states that reduced funding for higher education in response to the recession of 2008 have not yet returned higher education funding to pre-recession levels.

"State disinvestment [in higher education] is one of the major leading causes to out of control student debt," Natalia Abrams, the executive director of the advocacy group Student Debt Crisis, told ATTN. "At a time that colleges are rapidly increasing their cost we are seeing large cuts to state higher education budgets which in turn leaves students footing the entire bill."

If you're interested in higher education funding and college tuition, check our reports on funding issues in Wisconsin, Kansas, and South Carolina.