Top Navigation

Side Navigation

FY15 Illinois Legislative Appropriations Testimony

President Jack Thomas - March 5, 2014 (Senate) & April 10, 2014 (House)

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. I am pleased to share with you the budget testimony for Western Illinois University. Given the financial constraints that we all face, we understand the difficult task before this committee as you discern the best uses of scare resources. We stand ready to be partners in the economic recovery of this state. As has been stated many times, Higher Education can serve as an economic engine for the state of Illinois. Universities have the intellectual capital to educate the next generation of citizens, but we must protect the ability for us to deliver that education to all of our citizens. Western Illinois University considers affordability central to our mission. 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 FY15 budget request, I would like to highlight some of our recent accomplishments. For the ninth 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." For the fourth consecutive year, Western was selected as a "Best for Vets College" by Military Times EDGE magazine, and is one of two Illinois four-year universities in the top 50. We have also been recognized for the fifth consecutive year, as a "Military Friendly School," by GI Jobs Magazine.

In addition, U.S. News and World Reports 2014 rankings show that Western Illinois University out-performs its predicted graduation rates by 8 percent. Students at Western Illinois University are performing better in the classroom, retention rates have improved, and more students are finishing their first semester in good academic standing. The University's fall-to-spring freshman retention rate has improved from 82.2 percent (Fall 2012 to Spring 2013), to 91.1 percent (Fall 2013 to Spring 2014).

As I stated before, we offer an affordable education. We are the only University that provides the guaranteed cost structure for all student expenses. Students pay the same guaranteed four-year rate for tuition, but also for fees, room, and board. Thus, any increase in our rates is only applied to new students, which is roughly 25 percent of our student body. This program allows students and parents a predictable method to financially plan for their education. Not only do we provide the guarantee program but for the FY14 academic year, we offer the tenth lowest tuition rate among the 12 public Universities in Illinois and our student debt upon graduation is $4,200 lower than national averages. We continue to develop financial aid packages that encourage students from disadvantaged backgrounds to pursue a bachelor's degree. Our strategic plan, Higher Values in Higher Education, guides our decisions in providing services and programs to help students be successful.

This plan includes our commitment to serve students from underrepresented groups. In the past 10 years, we have seen our minority student population grow by over 14%. For the second consecutive year, 44% of our incoming freshmen were students from a minority demographic. We also continue to experience growth in the number of minority faculty and staff. During the 10 year period ending in 2013, our minority faculty has increased by almost 4% and the number of African American faculty and staff has increased by nearly 32%. Given that we are located 3 to 4 hours from any major metropolitan area, we are pleased with this growth and will continue to work to diversify our campus.

At Western, we provide all students the opportunity to be successful, especially in their transition to college. Our Building Connections mentoring program and First Year Experience program are proving to be a strong investment for student's transition. 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 make a contribution to the 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 Western $26.7M for our FY2014 appropriation and $6.1M for MAP awards. The uncertainty of these payments requires great finesse in our accounting and cash management areas. Our vendors lack trust in our ability to pay them in a timely manner. This has led to fewer bidders and higher prices for their services. This compounds and adds to the ever growing costs of higher education.

The financial realities that we encounter 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. Over the last 4 years, the number of faculty and staff members who work at our university has dropped by over 4.8% (98 employees). This accounts for a $5 million reduction in our payroll. These were necessary for us to ensure the long term viability of the institution. However, the reductions come with consequences to our students and to the employment levels of our region.

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 22% ($11.6M) in the last 12 years. And the demand for us to provide more resources through staff and technology continues to grow. There is increased pressure from surrounding states in the recruitment of our students and Illinois now ranks 49th out of 50 states in the number of students who leave the state for Higher Education.

Our students utilize university employment as another way to finance the cost of their education. The proposed minimum wage increase will have a $1.2M impact on our university which in turn, may jeopardize the number of employment opportunities we are able to offer our students. As decisions are made regarding the funding of Higher education, we encourage a balanced approach to helping those of our most needy students.

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. Currently 7% of every dollar collected in tuition and 15% of fees are being used to support deferred maintenance. We invest over $5M each year into deferred maintenance for appropriated facilities, yet our liability grows by over $6M each year. During the last 4 years, through the assistance of DCEO grants, we have invested $3.8M into energy efficiency that has not only helped with our deferred maintenance liability but also has improved the efficiency of our campus utilities. Without increases in either student support of our facilities or state funding, we are unable to keep pace on a campus serving a current student population of nearly 12,000.

We recognize the challenges faced by the state. However, we understand further reductions to higher education are being discussed which will have serious consequences to our university and especially for our students. Less state support results in an increased cost to students thereby limiting access and affordability.

Increasing numbers of students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds do not have adequate financial support from their families and are dependent on grants, student loans, and employment to fund their education. The amount of Financial Aid that is available through MAP, PELL and other programs has remained level while the cost of education continues to increase. This has created a funding GAP for our lower and middle income students. At WIU, 40 percent of our students receive PELL grants, 35 percent are MAP eligible and only 25 percent actually receive MAP funding.

Further cuts to our budget would result in reductions to university funded financial aid and employment for our neediest students thereby denying access to an affordable education.

We would also be forced to cut programs that support student retention and graduation. Reductions in programs that support student success not only increase the time it takes to complete a degree, but it would also result in lower graduation rates.

The tuition rate at WIU is the tenth lowest in the state. Further reductions to our budget, would result in fewer resources being directed to our high cost STEM programs including nursing, biology, engineering, engineering technology, and the sciences.

Our request for funding acknowledges the critical needs of our University in working to meet our mission and the mission of Higher Education in the state. However, given the current fiscal realities, we realize that you have difficult decisions to make when prioritizing scarce resources. Should funds be made available, we ask consideration for the following areas.

Our request includes funding for salary increases to meet bargaining unit contractual obligations for faculty and staff, critical deferred maintenance ($2.0 million), student financial aid for academically talented students with high financial need ($1.5 million), as almost one-quarter of our students come from households with reported incomes of under $30,000, and funds for our Quad Cities campus operations and instruction ($5.0million), all which are identified in our strategic plan, Higher Values in Higher Education. Western Illinois University stands ready to work for the citizens of our state and provide the education that our future generations require.

Finally, Western received funding to construct a Center for the Performing Arts as a part of the 2009 Capital Bill. The legislature has reauthorized funds for this project for the past 3 years. However, this project has not been included in any sale of bonds. We are asking for your support to assist in moving this project forward in order to begin construction. This project will bring over 400 construction jobs to the area and will greatly enhance our Fine Arts programs.

I am very optimistic about the role Higher Education plays in the economic recovery of our state. With your financial support, we stand ready to educate current and future generations of Illinoisans.

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