Lack of state funding could end University Center next year
Nora Mena was not in a good position to leave her family to go to college five years ago.
As a first-generation college student with a full-time job and living in Lake Villa with her immigrant parents, heading across the state seemed impossible. Just trying to explain going away for college to her parents, who lived in Macedonia before moving to America, was difficult.
But as she was completing her associate degree at the College of Lake County, Mena learned the building next door was the University Center of Lake County, where she could complete a bachelor's degree from Northeastern Illinois University without leaving home.
"It had the major I wanted and everything was at the Grayslake campus," Mena said. "It was the same faculty, same content (as at Northeastern). I was able to continue my life and my job in Lake County. It was just a really seamless transition for me."
For more than 20 years the University Center has been helping students like Mena, who earned her bachelor's and then a master's degrees from Southern Illinois University through the Grayslake campus.
But if the state's budget crisis continues to leave the University Center without funding, the next full academic year could be the institution's last.
The center has enough money to operate only until Dec. 31, 2018, said Executive Director and Dean G. Gary Grace.
"We've been able to survive the last two years by using reserves and meeting our expense obligations by using cash in leu of having full state appropriations," Grace said.
In the 2009-10 school year, the state contributed about $2.9 million to the University Center. That number gradually dwindled to around $1 million by the 2011-12 school year, where it remained through the 2014-15 school year.
The center received no state funding for the 2015-16 school year and $532,500 last year.
To cope, Grace said the center has slashed $2 million through service and staff costs. It also began charging rent to the colleges and universities that hold classes on campus, reversing assurances made by the state when the center opened.
The University Center also now rents space out as a conference center during the day when class isn't typically in session.
Grace suspects one reason the University Center's funding was cut so deeply when the state's financial troubles began mounting in 2009 was legislators didn't understand its purpose.
"(Lawmakers) thought, 'We can cut there because it doesn't hurt anything,'" Grace said. "We need to help them understand that they can't continue to cut here without jeopardizing the investment that taxpayers have made."
Opened by the state in 1997, the University Center allows suburban students to earn degrees from 20 four-year colleges and universities through classes hosted at campuses in Grayslake and Waukegan. Most of the schools are based in Illinois. The list includes DePaul University, Benedictine University, Eastern Illinois University, Illinois State University, Northern Illinois University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
About 350 students earn degrees annually through classes at the University Center.
Grace said the center opened after a two-year study determined the state wasn't in position to create a 13th public school campus in the suburbs.
"But the need they found was for place-bound, working adults, many in full-time jobs," he said. "These are the folks least likely to drive into the city or to DeKalb and are not going to move families to Bloomington-Normal so they can earn their degree."
While things seem grim for the University Center, it has its supporters in Springfield, including state Rep. Sam Yingling.
"Closure of University Center would be totally inexcusable," said Yingling, a Democrat from Round Lake. "If it closes, 1,650 students seeking higher education to improve their wage potential will no longer have tools they need."
Despite the uncertainty, the staff and students are trying to carry on as normal.
Hilary Ward Schnadt, the associate dean for academic services and programs, said she doesn't think about the center closing because keeping it open requires a relatively small amount of money relative to the amount of good it does.
"It's just a no-brainer," Schnadt said.
Even after Mena earned two degrees through the University Center, the institution remains important to her. After she earned her bachelor's degree in May 2014, she worked for SIU for two years while also taking classes at the center for her graduate degree.
"The joke was that they needed to bring a bed for me," Mena said.
She now works for the center as a recruitment specialist and adviser, helping persuade prospective students to follow her path and let the center be part of their lives.
"We're unique," she said. "This is our population we're serving and there's limited opportunities for them.
"What are they supposed to do, quit their jobs to go to school?"