University News

FY17 Illinois Legislative Appropriations Testimony

President Jack Thomas - March 10, 2016

Thank you Mr. Chairman, Minority Spokesman 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 Newmann and Interim Vice President of Administrative Services and Budget Director Matt Bierman.  Today, we will provide you with information about the current financial situation at Western Illinois University, highlight the successful activities at Western, and offer some information about our financial expectations regarding the FY2017 appropriation. 

As you are aware, we are operating our University through these unprecedented and unchartered times.  It is difficult to speak with you today about FY17 appropriations when we have not received FY16 appropriations. It is not just difficult, it is frustrating, and devastating. The lack of FY16 appropriations continues to have devastating impacts on our students, on our employees, and on the State of Illinois.  We are on the verge of a complete collapse of the higher education system.  This collapse will send our intellectual capital out of the state.  It will create a void in our middle class families who are striving for jobs as police officers, teachers, nurses, and small business owners.  Ultimately, the demise of higher education will reduce population levels, shrink tax revenues, and increase unemployment rates, all of which will subsequently increase the financial burdens of the state.  We must work together to provide an adequate funding stream to ensure that higher education is not just for those who can afford private education and to make certain that Illinois has access to an educated citizenry.  If it had not been for public colleges and universities, many of us would not be here today.

Our immediate concern is having enough cash to ensure we meet our financial obligations.  Next week, we will deplete our income fund of all tuition revenue and any reserves.  We will then operate on the reserves from non-instructional entities.   Soon, we will have to consider using statutorily restricted funds and risk credit problems just to provide basic services to our students.  This is a situation in which we could not have ever 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.  

There are dozens of real stories that put a face to the current funding problems.  These stories go far beyond our employees.  Recently, our local hospital was trying to recruit two new medical physicians.  Both indicated they would love to locate their practices within our community, but the uncertainty of state funding for Western Illinois University forced them to accept positions elsewhere.  We have tremendous difficulty recruiting civil service and professional employees for necessary employment functions at the University.  Many individuals simply believe that the risk of relocating within Illinois is too great and that state universities are no longer stable employers.

The “Crisis of Confidence” that we face has also had dramatic impacts on our enrollment. Our students, parents, alumni, donors, employees and community members, question the State’s commitment to higher education.  Our students and their parents ask what is Illinois doing to support education and how will it invest in our future?  Approximately 1/3 of all Illinois traditional college aged students leave the state to pursue higher education at other colleges and universities.  Our Fall 2015 enrollment was down 364 students from Fall 2014, and our Spring 2016 enrollment was down 578 students from Spring 2015.  Despite a 15% increase in our recruitment visits, our applications for enrollment are down by 10%.  This impact affects all of our funding streams, from appropriations, to tuition to donations. 

Despite the funding problems, Western Illinois University continues to meet our mission and strives to provide access to all qualified Illinois citizens.  84 percent of our Fall 2015 undergraduate population were Illinois residents.  At Western, 51 percent of undergraduate students are MAP eligible, while only 36 percent actually receive MAP funding.  50 percent of incoming freshmen are from a minority demographic and 40 percent are first generation college students. 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.  In fact, for the Fall 2016 cohort, we have 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 know these decisions will come with sacrifice and reductions in our operations, but we continue to transform Western Illinois University into an efficient, 21st Century learning environment. 

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 Illinois’ employers. 

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 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 also 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 to serve as contributors in our state and become tax payers in the Illinois economy.  It is through these programs and others that Western Illinois University makes a positive impact on the economic recovery of Illinois.

Our efforts have already been recognized by U.S. News and World Report as a “Best Midwestern University,” and as a “Best Midwestern College” by the Princeton Review. Through our Veterans' Resource Center, Western continues to take great pride in being a Military Friendly Institution, while providing excellent services for students who are veterans.  For a number of years, WIU has been named a "Best for Vets College" by Military Times EDGE magazine.  We are also proud of the recognition received from the GI Jobs Magazine and WIU is featured in the 2016 "Guide to Military Friendly Schools."

We are the economic engine for west central Illinois.  Within our 16 county service area, WIU generates an estimated $366 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 employment positions or a combination of the two.  Both are burdensome to our students.    

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.

We ask that you not only consider cuts to universities’ budgets but also investment.  We need support to address our deferred maintenance backlog of over $470 million, increased financial aid for students who have high financial need and capital projects that will transform our learning spaces and update our infrastructure.  In our case, we soon hope that the state can support capital funding which will provide funding for a science facility at our University.   

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.