University News

FY16 Illinois Legislative Appropriations Testimony

President Jack Thomas - March 12, 2015

Thank you Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee.

I am Jack Thomas, the 11th President of Western Illinois University, and I have with me today Provost Ken Hawkinson and Budget Director Matt Bierman. Today, I will highlight what Western Illinois University is doing to strengthen the education we provide, discuss the impact of sustained reductions on our students and offer our support in the economic recovery of the state.

We recognize that Illinois continues to have difficult financial decisions to consider during this legislative session. We stand ready to be partners in the economic recovery of this state. As has been stated many times, Higher Education serves as an economic engine for the state of Illinois. Universities have the intellectual capital to educate the next generation of citizens, but we must protect the ability for us to deliver that education to all of our citizens.

Western Illinois University strives to provide access to all qualified Illinois citizens. 84.5 percent of our fall 2014 undergraduate population were Illinois residents. At Western, 39.7 percent are MAP eligible, while only 27.7 percent actually receive MAP funding. For the third consecutive year, we increased the number of incoming freshmen from a minority demographic which is now over 53 percent of freshman. Our tuition rate is the tenth lowest in the state among the 12 public Universities in Illinois, and our student debt upon graduation is $25,000, lower than the national average of $33,000.

Additionally, we are the only University in the state that provides the guaranteed cost structure for all student expenses, including room, board, tuition and fees. This program allows students and parents a predictable method to financially plan for their education.

We recognize that even with these innovative programs, many of our students still need additional financial support. We continue to develop financial aid packages that target not only those students who have strong academic ability, but we also target those students from disadvantaged backgrounds to pursue a bachelor's degree.

U.S. News and World Report 2015 rankings show that Western Illinois University out-performs its predicted graduation rates by 10 percent. Our students are performing better in the classroom, retention rates have improved, and more students are finishing their first semester in good academic standing. The University's fall-to-fall freshman retention rate has improved from 63.3 percent in the Fall of 2013 to 72.1 percent in the Fall of 2014.

Over the past 13 years, Western Illinois University has seen a 19 percent ($12.4 million) decline in direct financial support from the State of Illinois. Additionally, we have experienced an increase in unfunded state mandates that conservatively total over $6 million annually. We continue to experience our own economic challenges because of declining enrollment due to the decrease in the number of high school graduates in the state and other variables. Given all this, I would like to demonstrate how we have continued to be good stewards of our financial resources.

Over the past five years, we mitigated the increases in our contractual salary obligations and increasing financial aid packages through reducing expenditures by over $12.9 million. This is primarily the result of cutting services, reducing maintenance on our facilities and by decreasing faculty and staff. Since 2009, we have reduced the number of employees by 151. This is a 7.1 percent reduction.

We have conducted program reviews to ensure our offerings are programs that our students demand. We recently announced that we will eliminate 24 programs that no longer have enough demand. An additional 17 programs have been put on a review list due to declining enrollments.

We recognize that we must be good stewards of our resources, and we must find agile ways to provide the necessary programs that meet the needs of our citizens. Our 12 signature academic programs, such as Law Enforcement, Forensic Chemistry, Accounting, and Agriculture bring much recognition not only to Western Illinois University but also to the State of Illinois. Over the last 5 years we have graduated 1,861 law enforcement personnel, 2,156 teachers, 3,218 business professionals, and 98 nurses. This is only a portion of the students who graduate to serve as contributors in our state and become tax payers in the Illinois economy. It is through these programs and others that Western Illinois University makes a positive impact on the economic recovery of Illinois.

We are an economic engine for the West Central Illinois region. In a recent analysis, it was determined that the overall economic impact that Western Illinois University has on the local 16 county area, was over $377 million annually. This dollar value speaks to the importance of higher education to our region. We not only impact our region through direct employment but also through vendor contracts, through our internship programs with the business community and through our public service and outreach programs that enhance the lives of the citizens of Illinois.

I mention these programs and services to demonstrate how we are using our financial resources for the public good of the citizens of the State of Illinois. We recognize our important role in the future of this state, and will continue to be innovators in the educational process to produce graduates who will make a contribution to the State of Illinois.

Yet, we must also recognize the financial struggles that we face each year. The budget reductions have taken its toll on our facilities. We continue to delay critical deferred maintenance expenditures. Without the proper financial support, we have been forced to use tuition and fee increases to renovate buildings and maintain our infrastructure. We have many laboratory and classroom facilities that are simply outdated and do not meet the needs of modern teaching standards. We are in desperate need of the resources to renovate our existing facilities. Without increases in either student support of our facilities or state funding, we are unable to keep pace on a campus that produces over 2,000 graduates and tax paying citizens annually.

We recognize the challenges faced by the state. However, the cuts that have been proposed as a part of the governor's budget package would have serious consequences to our university and particularly on our students. A 31.5 percent reduction in our appropriation would mean $16.6M less in state support for Western Illinois University and return us to appropriation levels not seen since 1985. This results in a 13 percent decrease to our overall instructional budget. To put this in context, for Western to replace this amount with a tuition increase in one year, would require a 65 percent increase in our tuition rate. Our tuition cost would increase from $8,600 to over $14,200. An increase of any magnitude will force more students out of state when Illinois already is the 2nd largest exporter of college students in the country. We need to do more to keep educated students within the borders of Illinois.

In order for us to sustain this reduction, we would be forced to consider further reductions of academic programs and public service programs, and eliminate hundreds of positions on our campus. The impact of decisions like this would mean fewer academic opportunities for students to pursue. It would mean fewer services such as counseling, advising, career placement, veterans programs, etc... Each of these has not only a direct impact on students' lives but also a direct impact on our region and our state.

Cuts of this magnitude mean less support to rural Illinois, less support for our most-in-need students and less support for quality teaching in our classrooms. It results in fewer resources being directed to our high cost STEM programs including nursing, biology, engineering, and the sciences. It requires cuts to programs that support student retention which will increase the time it takes to complete a degree. It also impacts our veteran students. Last year, WIU enrolled over 600 veterans, service members, and their spouses and children. These men and women depend on our services and already come to our campuses with additional academic and personal needs.

As the Governor outlined in his State of the State address, we understand that shared sacrifice will be necessary in order to solve the financial burdens of the State of Illinois. We will continue to do what is necessary to reduce those programs and services that are no longer effective. We will continue to review and reduce low enrolled academic programs. And we will continue to look for opportunities to provide innovation and collaboration within the higher education community. However, we implore you to recognize the unintended consequences of such drastic cuts.

We ask that you not only consider cuts to university's budgets but also investment. All institutions need support for deferred maintenance, increased financial aid for our students, and capital projects that will provide citizens jobs. In our case, we hope for support of a new science facility that will update labs that were built in the 1960s.

I am very optimistic about the role Higher Education plays in the economic recovery of our state. With your financial support, we stand ready to educate current and future generations of Illinoisans.

Again, I want to thank all of you for your support of Western Illinois University. We do appreciate your commitment to higher education and your willingness to listen. I am happy to answer any questions you might have.