The state’s ongoing budget problems and uncertainty over tuition aid for college students has taken a toll on local colleges and universities, some college administrators said.
Enrollment has declined at University of St. Francis in Joliet, Lewis University in Romeoville and Joliet Junior College in the past three years.
The drops in enrollment might not be as dramatic as those at some state institutions, where enrollment dipped by double-digit percentages, sending off alarms and red flags to other schools about how the state’s budget chaos affects higher education.
No one has yet measured just how much of the local enrollment decline is a result of state funding problems. Also not helping the situation, college officials said, is the uncertainty surrounding the Monetary Aid Program, known as MAP grants, that helps fund college education for Illinois students.
MAP grants have been restored for the current school year, but delays in the delivery of traditional tuition aid in the past few years hit hard for already stretched students whose budgets depend on the money.
“We know from anecdotal evidence from our students who are talking to our financial aid counselors that there’s a huge amount of anxiety about funding,” said Eric Wignall, vice president of admissions and enrollment services at the University of St. Francis. “We hear that from our students and our parents.”
Other factors, such as a decline in population in Illinois and lower high school enrollments, also have affected higher education, college officials said, but the state of Illinois’ financial problem isn’t helping either.
Enrollment on the 10th day of the fall semester at USF was 2,872, a 6 percent decline from the same point in 2015 when enrollment was 3,067.
At Lewis University, 10th-day enrollment was 6,436, down 3 percent from 6,645 in 2015.
At Joliet Junior College, 10th-day enrollment listed 8,479 full-time equivalency students, a 2.5 percent decline from 8,699 in 2015. Full-time equivalency is a measurement of how many part-time students are at community colleges.
Combined 10th-day enrollment at the state’s 12 public universities fell 4 percent, but some universities saw dramatic enrollment drops, raising concerns about the effect of Illinois budget problems on higher education.
Enrollment at Eastern Illinois University dropped 27 percent in three years, and it was down by 17 percent at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale and 15 percent at Western Illinois University.
Wignall said that USF has credited its students for MAP grants when they have been delayed, recovering the money when the state pays and providing some financial security for students amid the financial instability in state government.
“St. Francis is building a wall around that,” Wignall said. “We will be working on the assumption that when we accept students and enroll them, their financial aid is going to work out for them.”
USF and Lewis University, unlike state colleges and universities, do not depend on state government to directly fund operations. However, MAP grants ultimately make up a significant portion of their revenue.
Bad news surrounding the state universities has had a spillover effect, college officials said.
“Lewis is impacted by the general perception that it’s better to leave the state because Illinois is unstable,” Lewis University President David Livingston said. “We’re affected by that, just as is the University of Illinois and Governors State University.
“For the last two years, there’s been the general sense that Illinois hasn’t had its financial house in order. I think there were families looking at states – Indiana, Michigan – and were thinking that their students shouldn’t go to any school in Illinois.”
Colleges in neighboring states have stepped up recruiting efforts in the Chicago region because of a growing interest among prospective applicants to leave Illinois for a college education, Livingston said.
Joliet Junior College
The effect of disinterested applicants isn’t felt as strongly at Joliet Junior College, which receives its students from a defined community college district.
Randy Fletcher, vice president of academic affairs at JJC, said the effect of MAP grant uncertainty probably has not outweighed the power of an improving economy. He said that community colleges typically see the highest enrollments when economies are at their worst – as well as when unemployed workers return to school to train for new jobs.
“You always have to go back to 2009, when many community colleges had a spike in enrollment,” Fletcher said. “Many community colleges understood that was not the new level. Things were going to level out.”