College-accrediting agency sounds warning to legislators
A higher-education accrediting agency is warning Illinois lawmakers that the budget impasse could have "significant" consequences for the state's public colleges and universities.
The Higher Learning Commission, the regional accrediting agency for 19 states including Illinois, says schools that have to suspend operations or close because their state funding is unavailable could lose their accreditation if they don't come up with a viable plan for their students to continue at another college.
"The lack of state funding is putting Illinois colleges and universities at serious risk and jeopardizing the future of students," commission President Barbara Gellman-Danley wrote in a letter Thursday to Gov. Bruce Rauner and members of the General Assembly.
Community colleges and public universities have been operating without hundreds of millions of dollars in state funding since the fiscal year began on July 1.
Chicago State University officials have said their campus could close by March 1 without state funding. Eastern Illinois University has raised concerns about its ability to continue operations, and other schools have cut faculty or considered borrowing money to pay their bills.
In what was seen as an unprecedented move, Gellman-Danley sent letters to all of the state's public colleges and universities Thursday, re- questing financial information and asking them to respond by Feb. 18.
It asked them to explain their current cash situation and any financial challenges they're facing with payroll, vendors or other expenses; the effects that may have on the availability of textbooks, curriculum materials or other resources; any faculty or staff cuts in the works and the effect on classes this semester or in the fall; data on enrollment projections; and information on how the school has handled the loss of Monetary Award Program funding.
"A criterion for accreditation is demonstration of the availability of financial, physical, and human resources necessary to provide quality higher education," Gellman-Danley wrote in the letter to legislators, first publicized by the Capitol Fax blog. The commission "is obligated to move swiftly to protect Illinois students and to ensure the quality of the colleges and universities they attend."
If schools believe they will have to suspend operations or close in the next several months, they must provide a plan for their students to continue their education elsewhere, she said. That could mean transferring to private universities or schools in other states, she said.
"It is also probable some students may drop out of college," she told legislators.
The plan also must explain "how students will be informed about this urgent situation, including how they access transcripts if operations have been suspended due to lack of state funding," she said.
The commission's analysis of the plan and the college's viability could trigger a review of its compliance with accreditation criteria; a sanction, in which the school would have up to two years to demonstrate corrective action; or a withdrawal of accreditation. Schools would have to go through a multi-year process to regain accreditation.
Students at schools that aren't accredited by an agency recognized by the federal government can't access federal financial aid, said Gellman-Danley, former president of two Ohio colleges.
"I recognize the pain of budget shortfalls, especially in our home state of Illinois," she told legislators. "The economic challenges the state faces are significant, and difficult decisions undoubtedly must be made. I am writing because I believe it is important for you to have all the relevant information before making the tough decisions that fall to your positions."
The accreditation of the University of Illinois' three campuses "won't be an issue," spokesman Tom Hardy said Friday, though the school will respond to the commission's request.
"We don't foresee the suspension of operations or closure anytime in the foreseeable future," he said.
Officials at Eastern Illinois University did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
The commission was formerly known as the Higher Learning Commission of North Central.