‘Erosion of state resources’ puts ICC in tough spot

DeWayne Bartels

April was Community College Month, but Dr. John Erwin, president of Illinois Central College, finds the state is leaving him little to celebrate.

“The challenge here is the state of Illinois. There is an erosion of state resources,” Erwin said. “What has happened over the past six years is a constant erosion of state support.”

Just a few years ago, Erwin said, community colleges were 10 percent of the state’s education budget. Today, that amount stands at 8 percent. Erwin said the result has been a growing dependence on property taxes and rising tuition rates.

He said Illinois has the third largest community college system in the country, with 48 colleges serving 1 million people annually. Yet, the state, he said, is drawing down funding.

Three weeks ago ICC hiked tuition again.

“I’ve been here eight years, and we’ve had to raise tuition every year I’ve been here,” Erwin said.

Tuition stands now at $82 per credit hour, bringing the college, once considered a great bargain compared to other community colleges, much closer to the community college state average of $85 per credit hour.

Erwin said there are two major reasons for the funding situation.

“One reason is the profile of our public universities. They have been successful in lobbying legislators that are alum,” Erwin said. “The other reason is K-12 schools receive more attention. It takes the lion’s share of resources. We’re caught in the middle…We’re a second thought.”

He said even when legislators have attended community colleges, they tend to identify with the university they graduate from, and not the community college they attended.

“Community colleges, I think, maybe, haven’t done so well in identifying our role.

The role of college trustees could be magnified in that area,” he said. “We need to work harder to get our message out. We need to tell the story of our successes. We aren’t doing that well. We only need a small shift of attention to gain back that 8 to 10 percent of state funding we’ve lost.”

Gaining back that level of state support, Erwin said, is important because ICC is facing the potential loss of even more state funding.

Asked what chances of turning the state funding issue around without better public relations in the statehouse was, Erwin chuckled.

“Slim to none, I’d say,” he said. “Our funds are being threatened. They could take another $500,000 to $700,000.”  

But, Erwin said, he still has several thousand reasons to be happy with his role.

The college serves 20,000 students a

semester and, he said, they make his job worthwhile.

“Seeing them learn and graduate is satisfying,” he said.