University News

FY17 Illinois House Higher Education Committee Testimony

President Jack Thomas - May 4, 2016

Thank you Vice Chair Welch, Minority Spokesperson Hammond and members of the Committee.

I am Jack Thomas, the 11th President of Western Illinois University, and I have with me today Interim Provost Kathy Neumann and Budget Director and Interim Vice President of Administrative Services Matt Bierman.

Today, I will provide you with information about the ongoing financial situation at Western Illinois University and describe how the budget impasse is affecting our institution. Let me begin my remarks by offering my appreciation for your leadership and support of SB 259. This stopgap higher education appropriation bill authorized funds to Western Illinois University that were desperately needed and gave a much-needed confidence boost to our students, faculty, staff, parents and region.

We appreciate the cooperation and willingness of all groups to support public higher education in Illinois.

As you are aware, we are operating our University through unprecedented and unchartered times. The lack of a full FY16 appropriation continues to have devastating impacts on our students, on our employees, on West Central Illinois and on the entire State of Illinois. We are on the verge of a complete collapse of the higher education system that is sending our intellectual capital out of the state. It will create a void in our middle class families who are striving for jobs as teachers, nurses, small business owners, police officers and others.

Our immediate concern is having enough cash to ensure we meet our financial obligations. The recent stopgap appropriation has provided us with approximately 2 months of financial resources in order to make payroll and pay our vendors. Over a month ago, we exhausted our income fund and its reserves.

Recently, our Board of Trustees held a special board meeting to deliberate the use of statutorily-restricted funds and risk credit problems just to provide basic services to our students until an adequate FY16 State Appropriation is passed. The stopgap appropriation did provide us with necessary relief, related to spending restricted funds, but without further state support, it will be necessary for us to use these funds before the end of July.

This is an unprecedented situation in which we could not have predicted. We are a State University, and we are asking for your help in continuing to support public higher education so that we are able to educate the people in your districts and across the State of Illinois and beyond.

This impasse has seriously affected Western Illinois University. To date, approximately 500 staff are participating in a furlough, or salary reduction program. 59 employees have taken advantage of an early retirement incentive program that the University sponsored. With most regret, we just finished a second round of layoffs this week, that will total 145 employees who have received layoff notices this fiscal year. Further personnel decisions may have to be made, should the University not receive additional appropriations.

Other out-of-state institutions are taking this opportunity to recruit some of our best faculty, staff, and students from the State of Illinois.

But most importantly, is the “Crisis of Confidence” that has been created by this impasse. Public perception of the lack of support for public higher education in Illinois has had dramatic impacts on our enrollment. Our students, parents, alumni, donors, employees and community members, question the State’s commitment to higher education. We are preparing for a decrease in enrollment as we have already seen our numbers begin to decline. This impact affects all of our funding streams, from appropriations, to tuition to donations.

Despite these funding challenges, Western Illinois University continues to advance our mission and niche in providing a high quality, well-rounded educational experience to a diverse student body:

  • 84 percent of our Fall 2015 undergraduate population were Illinois residents.
  • 51 percent of undergraduate students are MAP eligible, while only 36 percent actually received MAP funding.
  • 50 percent of incoming freshmen are from a minority demographic and 40 percent are first generation college students.
  • In March 2016, the United States Department of Education recognized Western Illinois University in the top 2% of over 2,000 colleges and universities nationally in the retention and graduation of low income students. We were named an institution that “excels in student access and success.”
  • Our tuition rate is the ninth lowest in the state among the 12 public Universities in Illinois, and our average student debt upon graduation is $25,900, which is lower than the national average of $35,000.

During these difficult financial times, we recognized a need to limit our tuition increases. For the Fall 2016 cohort, we lowered tuition by 3% in order to decrease the financial burdens on our students. We are the only University in the state that provides the guaranteed cost structure for all student expenses, including room, board, tuition and fees. This program allows students and parents a predictable method to financially plan for their education.

We have been responsive to the needs of the state and our region as we have created programs in nursing, community and economic development, applied statistics and decision analytics, and engineering. All of these programs are providing quality graduates for employers in Illinois.

We have also eliminated or are phasing out over 18 programs that are no longer viable. We continue to evaluate other academic and non-academic programs and services to ensure that we are operating with efficiency, productivity, and responsiveness to the State of Illinois. Our mission of quality education, access and affordability to the citizens of Illinois, continues, despite the challenges of the current budget impasse.

We recognize that we must be good stewards of our resources, and we must find agile ways to provide the necessary programs that meet the needs of our citizens. Our 12 signature academic programs, including Law Enforcement and Justice Administration, Forensic Chemistry, Accounting, and Agriculture bring much recognition not only to Western Illinois University but to the State of Illinois. Over the last 5 years, we have graduated 1,925 law enforcement personnel, 1,948 teachers, 3,119 business professionals, and 126 nurses. This is only a portion of the students who graduate and become employees and taxpayers in the State of Illinois. It is through these programs and others that Western Illinois University makes a positive impact on the economic recovery of Illinois.

Please remember that we are the economic engine for west central Illinois. Within our 16 county service area, Western generates an estimated $473 million in economic output.

We acknowledge the challenges faced by legislators in attempting to solve the State of Illinois financial struggles. As a result, we stand ready for shared sacrifice. But, the sacrifice must be shared and the entire burden must not be placed on Illinois citizens who look toward Public Higher Education as the great equalizer.

We recognize the need for budget reductions, but allow me to put these reductions in context for you. Every 10% reduction in our FY15 appropriation would mean approximately a $5 million reduction in our budget. To make up for this, it would require a 20% increase in tuition, or the reduction of 80 full time employees or a combination of the two. Both are burdens to our students.

However, these are not the first cuts to Western Illinois University. Since 2002, state appropriated funding has decreased by 20%. Adjusted for inflation, this percentage increases to a staggering 39%. During this time, our expenses have grown less than the rate of inflation. My Leadership Team and I have implemented measures over the last five years to build a monetary reserve and strategically reduce expenditures in as many areas as possible to mitigate the impact to students, faculty, and staff.

Since 2011, we have combined administrative departments to achieve streamlined operations and efficiencies, decreased facilities and maintenance services, and realized attrition savings. Other cost containment strategies have included the offering of retirement incentives, reducing public service entities, and eliminating a sports program. Over this 5-year period, these measures have reduced budgetary costs by over $16 million dollars, while protecting the academic core and mission of the University.

I am very optimistic about the role Higher Education plays in the economic recovery of our state. Our mission of quality education, access and affordability to the citizens of Illinois continues, despite the challenges of the current budget impasse. We respectfully ask for adequate FY16 appropriations to finish out this year and for appropriate FY17 funding that will allow us to continue our mission of educating greatest asset of Illinois, its citizens. 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.