SPRINGFIELD -- Next week, suburban college students will descend on the University Center of Lake County for another semester taking classes offered by universities as far away as Carbondale.
When they arrive, they'll find an institution coping with a 66 percent drop in its state funding.
In the 2009 school year, the state sent about $2.9 million to the University Center of Lake County, which had 1,890 students in 2009-2010. Last week, the Illinois Board of Higher Education ratified a budget that reduces that number to $1 million.
There were incremental cuts in the years in between.
"This is not a level we can get used to," said Anne Kaplan, chair of the center's board and a vice president at Northern Illinois University, which offers classes in Grayslake.
Kaplan says the center's greatest strength -- the collaboration of more than a dozen universities -- is also a weakness in attracting funding because not many people feel a real ownership of the project.
But in an area of the state without many four-year university options, the University Center, she says, offers an efficient way to hold classes at a time when unemployment has more people looking for education opportunities.
"I think the state has an interest in seeing this experiment through," Kaplan said.
Despite the severe funding cut, officials say the center will keep offering services in the hope that state finances eventually will improve.
A librarian at the Grayslake facility was cut back to part time previously. Now, that job has been eliminated completely. The Waukegan campus will be closed during the day except when classes are being offered.
Marketing costs were cut, even though marketing helps bring in money by drawing companies to use the Grayslake building as a conference center.
"It can be a vicious cycle," said center Executive Director Gary Grace.
It's possible that lawmakers later this year could approve more spending throughout state government, including a little more for the University Center.
Illinois Board of Higher Education Executive Director George Reid said the group lobbied lawmakers hard for the center and will continue to do so.
"We understand the severe disadvantage that has been placed on the center," he said.
Lawmakers, though, could be hesitant to spend more. They're facing intense public pressure to get the state budget under control. And requests for more state money continue to come from almost every interest in Illinois.
That includes public universities throughout Illinois, many of which offer classes in Lake County. What programs are available in the suburbs ultimately could depend on how well the state's various schools are doing and whether they can afford offering classes in Grayslake.
The center, to help raise money, is charging the schools more to rent space to hold classes on site. But those schools also have seen their budgets cut, though not as drastically as University Center's.
"Many of the member institutions are going through the same thing," Kaplan said.