College-accrediting agency sounds warning to legislators

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.

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jms wrote on February 08, 2016 at 10:02 am

This budget ordeal has gone on way too long. The destruction, and it is destruction, of higher education in Illinois is a huge mistake and a terrible thing to hang over the employees in our colleges.

Both parties are responsible for the budget crisis -- I'm a democrat and I'm angry at Blagojevich, Madigan, and our Naomi Jakobbsen for not funding the pensions -- but Rauner is ruthlesslessly gutting higher education to push his own agenda. 


vcponsardin wrote on February 08, 2016 at 11:02 am

State universities are one of Illinois's primary economic engines.  State universities generate income, tax revenue, and development through job growth, commercial innovation, and the attraction of international attention and investment to the state.  Sadly, politicians aren't able to see beyong the ends of their very short noses, and only consider universities as immediate money drains.  They also think they can halt payments to schools for a time and that this will have no long term effect.  But universities don't operate like most businesses that can cut staff during economic downturns and then quickly rehire them back once things improve.  World-class university faculties take generations to develop, but can be destroyed over night, often leaving permanent deficts for decades to come.  The state can't just fire an entire academic department one year and then hire them all back the next.  University faculty don't work like that.  Once they're gone, they're gone for good--and with it the state's principle economic engine for recovery.  But politicians are simply not bright enough to see this.

BruckJr wrote on February 08, 2016 at 11:02 am

When was the last time that the Higher Learning Commission withdrew accreditation from a state university?  They won't even withdraw accreditation from diploma mills.

annabellissimo wrote on February 08, 2016 at 3:02 pm

Eastern Illinois University with excellent national rankings in all respects, with high marks for efficiency, with a long history of being treated unfairly fiscally by the Illinois General Assembly is suffering terrible consequences from the budget impasse partly because of those very conditions. Chicago State University being widely recognized for its history of, shall we say, improprieties, for being a boondoggle for corrupt Illinois politicians and other dishonorable opportunists, for having a reputation in higher education as NOT being a "real" university but as a place for political cronyism to drain resources from the real and true colleges and universities and to hide behind its "minority enrollment" statistics as a raison d'etre did virtually nothing at all throughout all the recent years and months of growing fiscal crisis, while simultaneously getting special treatment and bigger bucks. They did nothing while other colleges and universities like EIU were forced to respond to the severe fiscal demands placed on them. Governor Rauner’s staff put out a scathing memo citing Chicago State's actual deplorable statistics but to my knowledge that memo has not appeared in the newspaper at all. That should be reported because, in contrast, Chicago State is getting a lot of attention for declaring exigency now, even though they have done virtually nothing before now to respond to the fiscal crisis that is devastating other universities like EIU! That memo is readily available online as the AP obtained a copy of it, but here is one link for it: Yet Chicago State gets discussed in the same lines as EIU or any other legitimate college or university as if it is on par. It has drained and misused tax dollars and public trust and yet Chicago State is suddenly the "poster child" for the budget problems? Rauner’s office lumps “administrators” at Chicago State with all university adminstrators, even EIU, where the number of administrators is very low, the ratio is very low, and the pay is low by comparison with other universities in the state and certainly outside of Illinois. Eastern’s President has historically earned less than even area K-12 school superintendents. Chicago State has about half as many students as EIU, and yet their appropriation is $36M compared to $40M for EIU. While there are still people in Illinois who can do math, do the math; that calculation is easy to do! It’s a formula for a cologne that reeks of fish. It is one thing to aim to prepare and educate more "minority" students than have historically been recruited, something that EIU has undertaken in a serious and respectful way, but it is quite another to use that aim as a façade behind which tax dollars are misused and “students” ill served, something with which Chicago State's reputation has long been associated. Illinois taxpayers should demand that Illinois elected officials defend in public forums their egregious treatment of a legitimate university like Eastern Illinois University, punishing it for doing a terrific job in all respects against terrible obstacles placed in front of it, while rewarding Chicago State for poor performance. And now apparently preparing to punish EIU and all Illinois colleges and universities doing laudable work in extremely difficult circumstances for the "sins" of one or two institutions? That is just pouring salt into wounds! While I do want the University of Illinois to return to its days as a great institution of ideas and research and creativity, recent years have seen it decline in that kind of stature while also spending profligately and lowering its standards. Yet, the article says: “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. Do the University of Illinois and the Illinois elected entities intend for UIUC to be the last institution of higher education standing in Illinois? Easier for political hacks to control that way? Meanwhile, EIU, the “little engine that could”, keeps plugging away at doing the right things, year after year, but it is schools like EIU that will “foot the bill” for the fiscal damage inflicted upon them by all the bad actors! Suggestion for your next article please, Ms. Wurth: What Happened When Inmates Began Running the Asylum. Or here’s a question to pose to Madigan: Rauner has at least visited EIU (and Edgar and his wife are alums, although you would never know it). Have you ever heard of EIU or Charleston, Illinois? Don’t you think you should at least view the body before you bury it?

MahometMatt wrote on February 08, 2016 at 11:02 pm

This is insanity! The UI is really the only state university that can sustain operations indefinitely (but still with a noticeable impact) without a state budget and the state funding allocation. For some of our state universities, there is now a very real possibility of locking the doors in the near future. What kind of anarchist third world state is this? Oh yeah, that's right: Illinois.

State universities are one of the best tools for educating--and retaining--our young adults who will become the backbone of the state's economy in the future. Not only does this level of peril harm innocent students, it also threatens total economic collapse for some of the state's small towns that are virtually 100% state university dependent.

This has all bad consequences, both short term and long term, and the negative feedback loop this creates--loss of university jobs and students beget loss of private sector jobs dependent on university students and employees--has economic death spiral potential.

How can our state government, where no amount of blame spreading is excessive or hyperbolic, do this to its people and its next generation of tax payers? We've become accustomed to shooting ourselves in the foot. The gun is now aimed at vital organs. Put it down!