Taxpayers, students bridge funding gap for suburban community colleges
Ten years ago, College of DuPage received $21.2 million from the state to help fund the operation of the second-largest community college system in Illinois.
By 2015, the state's contribution had dropped to $18.7 million. It was the only suburban college to receive less money that year than a decade ago.
But now, every suburban community college is in the same boat, with property taxes and tuition taking up the slack for declining state funding.
"Right now it's not growth or stagnation -- we're going in the opposite direction," said Sharon Konny, vice president of business and finance at Elgin Community College. "For a two-year period, 2016 and 2017 combined, we're not going to get the amount of funding we got for just 2015."
In the decade ending in 2015, state funding rose 7.5 percent, on average, for seven suburban community colleges. Tuition income rose on average 43.6 percent and property tax revenue -- the biggest funding source -- jumped 43.1 percent, according to a Daily Herald analysis of financial records from seven suburban community colleges. The colleges are ECC, COD in Glen Ellyn, College of Lake County in Grayslake, Harper College in Palatine, McHenry Community College in Crystal Lake, Oakton Community College in Des Plaines and Waubonsee Community College in Sugar Grove.
Colleges have cut back, said Illinois Community College Board spokesman Matt Berry.
"To address the severe budget reductions from the state of Illinois over the past two years, community colleges have had to lay off employees, reduce student support services, eliminate programs and deplete reserve funds in order to continue to provide a high quality, affordable education to students throughout Illinois," Berry said.
Created under the funding premise of "shared responsibility" among students, local property taxpayers and the state, community colleges have turned largely toward property taxes for funding, particularly in the suburbs.
"It's my understanding it was supposed to be a third, a third, a third of equally shared responsibility," Konny said.
However, nothing in the state's community college charter language mandates levels of funding by each group.
Property tax revenue at all seven suburban community college districts amounted to almost $428 million in 2015, the last year for which full financial reports are available. Tuition generated nearly $195 million for the colleges. Other revenue like federal grants or contracts, on-site business operations and corporate agreements generated a combined $137 million. The state only chipped in $65 million to all seven colleges in 2015, according to the analysis.
The colleges received even less than that from the state in 2016, according to Berry.
Konny said ECC has laid off 17 members of its support staff, kept 25 positions vacant, raised tuition by $6 an hour and is looking at other ways "we've never had to look at before" to balance the budget. She said administrators agreed to forgo raises this year.
The state used to pay a bigger share. A 1981 report by the state community college board reported that during the previous six years, the state had contributed 39 percent of all the revenue generated by the state's community colleges. During that same period, property taxes accounted for 37 percent, tuition 20 percent and other revenue sources accounted for 4 percent.
In 2015, property taxes accounted for 52 percent of revenue in the seven suburban colleges and state payments account for just 7.9 percent of the seven colleges' income. Some of the increase in property taxes can be attributed to voter-approved borrowing, but much has to do with covering the state shortfall.
Like many of the state's financial problems, the lack of funding of community colleges can be at least partially blamed on the state's pension program. The state is responsible for covering the employer share of the community colleges' pension obligation. Ten years ago, that obligation to the seven suburban colleges was $15 million. By 2015, the state's obligation to the State University Retirement System for the seven suburban colleges was more than $151 million, according to the colleges' audits.
State Rep. Grant Wehrli, a Naperville Republican who sits on the Higher Education Appropriations Committee, said he's seen little concern from fellow legislators in the two years he's sat on that committee.
"Never once have we actually talked about funding higher education or disbursements," he complained. "It's an appropriations committee that does nothing and meanwhile our state falls apart."
In the meantime, most community college boards are in the middle of budget planning for the next fiscal year with no guarantees of state funding of any kind.
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