University News

FY14 Illinois Legislative Appropriations Testimony

President Jack Thomas - April 11, 2013 (House) & April 17, 2013 (Senate)

Thank you Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee.

I am Jack Thomas, the 11th President of Western Illinois University, and I have with me today Provost Ken Hawkinson and Budget Director Matt Bierman and other staff in the audience. I am honored to share with you today the budget testimony for Western Illinois University. Western Illinois University has a rich history as a University that provides citizens with a quality education at an affordable cost. Our educational model demonstrates our commitment to student success, and we appreciate the support that the state provides us in meeting these goals.

Prior to discussing our FY14 budget request, I would like to highlight some of our recent accomplishments. For the eighth consecutive year, U.S. News and World Report has named Western Illinois University a "Best Midwestern University," and The Princeton Review has named Western a "Best Midwestern College." Western was again selected as a "Best for Vets College" by Military Times EDGE magazine. We are the only Illinois four-year university in the top 25 of this poll. We have also been recognized for the fourth consecutive year, as a "Military Friendly School," by GI Jobs Magazine.

The Southern Regional Education Board identified Western as a "model" institution that serves a comparatively high percentage of Pell Grant recipients and students who are from lower socio-economic backgrounds. We were recognized for our success in graduating these students, despite the inherent challenges. Also, Western was recognized by the Pell Foundation as one of only 13 institutions nationwide to graduate these students at a rate higher than the national average. We are only 1 of 3 public universities in Illinois included in The College Guide to Access and Opportunity.

Western continues to serve student populations not only in our own region but from all over the state and beyond. In the past 10 years, we have seen our minority student population grow by over 14%. 44% of our incoming freshmen class for Fall 2012 were minority students. Our recruitment efforts align with the Public Agenda which provides access to public higher education for all students. We also continue to experience growth in the number of minority faculty and staff. During the 10 year period ending in 2012, our African American faculty and staff have increased by over 58% and by over 76% in our Hispanic Americans. Given that we are located 3 to 4 hours from any major metropolitan area, we are pleased with this growth.

In addition to being recognized for the great work at Western, we continue to make certain that we are an institution that is accessible and affordable to all citizens. Our strategic plan, Higher Values in Higher Education, guides our decisions about providing services and programs to help students be successful. We continue to be the only University in the state that offers our cost guarantee program to all undergraduate and graduate students. Students pay the same guaranteed four-year rate for tuition, fees, room, and board. This program allows students and parents a predictable method to financially plan for their education. We recently began the Western Commitment Scholarship program. This program recognizes students with excellent academic ability who demonstrate high achievement in high school by offering scholarships towards the cost of attendance at Western.

At Western, we provide all students the opportunity to be successful. We recently developed a mentoring program for new freshmen. The Building Connections program assigns students to faculty and staff volunteers. By mentoring and coaching these students through their first year, we have found an improved retention rate for those students who utilized their mentor. It is through innovative programs like this that we help students succeed. Additionally, Western's Academic Support Services program admits a select number of students each year who meet our admissions standards but are at greater academic risk. This program provides additional resources for students who may be lacking in academic preparation. Through providing these extra resources, this program is having an impact on college completion rates.

I mention all these programs and services to demonstrate how we are using our financial resources for the public good of the citizens of the state of Illinois. We recognize our important role in the future of this state, and will continue to be innovators in the educational process to produce graduates who will become contributors to the great State of Illinois.

As you are aware, the cash flow situation in Illinois continues to have a great impact on our financial outlook. The State of Illinois currently owes us $38.8M for our appropriation and $5.6M for MAP awards. This situation has created much uncertainty and makes planning extremely difficult. In order to maintain the quality education for which we are known, we have implemented cost cutting measures that include overall budget reductions, strategic hiring reviews, and reductions in travel.

One of our most significant concerns is the University's need to cover deferred maintenance expenditures. Without state support, we are forced to use tuition and fee increases to renovate buildings and maintain our infrastructure. Another significant concern is educational affordability for our students. Public universities continue to be criticized for tuition and fee increases. Yet, our general revenue support from the State of Illinois has decreased by 13% ($7.7M) in the last 4 years. Our students carry the burden for many of these reductions and as a result, Illinois has become the second largest exporter of students for higher education. This trend is one that is significant for the future of our state. We want you to know that we will do all that we can as a University to assist with this important issue.

It is within this context of downward trends and uncertainty that we seek your support for next year's budget. We are fully aware of the fiscal problems faced by the state. However, we believe that Western Illinois University and the other public universities have been good partners with the state, and have continued to meet our missions despite the downward trends in funding support.

I am not going to spend much time on the specifics of our request for next year, but I can assure you that given current fiscal realities, our expectations are considerably lower than the request level. Beyond a maintenance budget, the areas we are prioritizing, if there were any new funds, are fairly straightforward.

They include additional funding for critical deferred maintenance ($2.0 million), and funds for our Quad Cities campus operations and instruction ($4.5million). We are also requesting student financial aid for academically talented students with high financial need ($1.5 million), this year, as almost one-quarter of our students come from households with reported incomes of under $30,000. 27% of our students received MAP awards. This is down from 29% last year. Students who received MAP funding have historically had a higher retention rate than the all-student average.

Today, I am asking for your support to authorize the sale of bonds to complete the capital projects that were funded with the 2010 Capital bill. In this bill, Western received funding to construct a Performing Arts Center on the Macomb Campus. This project will bring over 400 construction jobs to the area and will greatly enhance our Fine Arts programs.

I am very concerned about the deterioration of public higher education support nationwide. Higher education is an economic engine. It helps develop an educated engaged citizen. As you deliberate on the upcoming budget, I urge you to consider helping us meet this critical mission.

Again, I want to thank all of you for your support of Western Illinois University and higher education. We do appreciate your commitment to higher education and your willingness to listen. I am happy to answer any questions you might have.