Community colleges in crisis due to tuition costs, lack of resources

Nick Stroman

The critical state of funding for community colleges in Illinois due to high tuition costs and dwindling resources was the topic of a special meeting hosted by Illinois Central College in East Peoria on Monday.

The Illinois Community College Board’s budget and finance committee heard testimony from various community colleges throughout the state, including college presidents, program directors and students.

ICC president Dr. John Erwin said the  people gathered for the hearing all had a common goal of serving students’ needs and the thunder clouds that darkened the windows of the meeting room were symbolic.

“Those rain drops might as well be our tear drops from the state of things in the last few years,” Erwin said.

Erwin said ICC is offering scholarships to make up for the lack in state funds.

Erwin said 350 students received scholarships at ICC this year and many of them waited more than two years to attend college because of lack of financial support.

However, 512 students did not receive scholarships and of that number, 201 chose not to enroll in college at all because of lack of financial aid.

“That’s an alarming statistic for us and every time our tuition goes up, I’m going to think of those that couldn’t attend,” Erwin said.

Erwin added a good example of the pain those associated with the college feel is the recent opening of ICC South in Pekin.

One of the key programs at the new extension site is welding and because of restricted funding, they can’t keep up with the demand.

“We have a 16-station lab and we really need 24 to 30 stations, but it costs too much money,” Erwin said.

The tuition at community colleges rose more than 31 percent in the past five years.

Carl Sandburg College President Thomas Schmidt said his college in Galesburg carries the highest price tag in the state: $127 per credit hour.

In 1993, it cost just $45 per credit hour to attend Carl Sandburg.

“The lack of state support has created chaos in our ability to adopt budgets in a  timely matter,”

Schmidt said, adding an accrediting agency recently told the college to prepare a financial recovery plan.

“Our history of revenue sources has turned into a rollercoaster ride,” he added.

To help protect the future students of the college, Schmidt said they have implemented a tuition rate guarantee starting this year.

Students who take a 12-hour course load will pay $127 per credit hour for the next three years.

It will also apply to high school juniors taking dual credit courses, but their rate is locked in forthe next five years.

Schmidt said he always considered the state of Illinois and taxpayers as the two parents of the child that is community colleges.

“And I think we should sue for lack of child support now,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt concluded his testimony by saying if the problem is not resolved this year, he would not return next year to give the same speech.

Marcus Brown, dean of enrollment services at Richland Community College in Decatur, echoed Schmidt’s sentiments and said it is time for the state to hold up its end of the bargain.

Brown said the college is ill prepared when demand for a class is too great during open enrollment.

Illinois community colleges serve about a million students each year in credit and non-credit course offerings.

More than 7,000 students attend Richland annually and Brown said it can be difficult to maintain without state support.

“For every additional class section we open, it’s an expense to faculty because of extra workload,” Brown said.

“Our students’ needs continue to grow and keeping them in classes is key, but we don’t have the staff numbers or technology to support it,” he added.

Joe Kanosky, president of Highland Community College in Freeport, said his small school’s financial plight started when they lost more than $200,000 in state funding from 2003 to 2004.

Their 2009 state money stands at $133,000, compared to more than $553,000 in 2003.

The most alarming figure is the college’s budget for workforce development programs. It was at $287,000 in 2003 and now stands at just $50,000.

“All our money has simply disappeared and we haven’t received any funding for instructional manuals, maintenance or technology since ‘03,” Kanosky said.

Kanosky said the college established the Highland Foundation which has helped fill in the gaps by providing scholarships.

Dr. Eric Radtke has only been president of Prairie State College in Chicago Heights for one month and said the school is up for accreditation in one month. He said he is concerned about their possible overall view of the college with the current financial state.

“Coming from Cleveland, I think Illinois has a complex and confusing system and I’m trying to determine what the underlying logic is,” Radtke said.

Prairie State’s student body includes five towns in the college district that fall 24 percent below the state average for poverty rates.

Ninety percent of the college’s local high school graduates must enroll in developmental courses at Prairie State because of low test scores and most of the schools are on academic watch lists for No Child Left Behind as well.

“We can’t provide a lifeline or hope to these students and towns without the financial means to encourage and educate,” Radtke added.

A final round of testimony will be at John Logan College in Carterville Sept. 18 before the entire ICCB hears a report from the budget and finance committee at its Sept. 19 meeting.