$38.5 billion state budget includes big wins for UI, students

$38.5 billion state budget includes big wins for UI, students

A new grant program for middle-income college students, $500 million for a University of Illinois-led research initiative based in Chicago and a 2 percent budget increase for higher education — all good news after three years of funding cuts and budget stalemates, state university officials said Thursday.

The $38.5 billion state budget sent Thursday to Gov. Bruce Rauner will give state colleges and universities something they haven't had for several years: predictability.

"We're very relieved that we have a budget in a timely fashion and that it's more money than what we received last year," said University of Illinois Executive Vice President Barbara Wilson, praising local legislators for the bipartisan budget agreement.

The extra $11.6 million for the UI — far less than the $98 million increase the university had requested — will be targeted at faculty recruitment, student scholarships and a campus salary program, Wilson said.

At Illinois State University, President Larry Dietz has made clear that what universities want is "consistent and predictable funding," said spokesman Eric Jome. ISU will get another $1.3 million, for a total of $66.3 million.

"Certainly it's not at the same level as it was prior to the budget impasse, but it is an increase over the current fiscal year. We're certainly grateful for that," Jome said.

Some of the $500 million allocated to the Discovery Partners Institute in Chicago — a priority for the governor — will support other hubs on the proposed statewide "innovation network" anchored by DPI, including the three UI campuses, Wilson said. The UI president's office is leading the process to determine how to allocate the $500 million, which will come from the Build Illinois bond fund via the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

"I think it's going to be pretty well distributed," not just concentrated in Chicago, Wilson said, adding that other funding will follow from private sources. She declined to be more specific.

"We hope that there's an allocation of those funds that supports other innovation nodes across the state," said Laura Frerichs, director of the UI Research Park in Champaign.

The $500 million was negotiated by legislative leaders, said state Sen. Chapin Rose, who was part of the bipartisan caucus that worked on other parts of the budget agreement. He has been cautious about the DPI proposal, fearing that it could siphon resources from the Urbana campus.

"I think there's an opportunity for Urbana within this," Rose said Thursday. "It's up to the chancellor to define that opportunity and sell it to the greater Fighting Illini community as worthy."

The Urbana campus didn't receive funding for any new buildings, though the capital bill includes money for projects appropriated in 2010 or even earlier and later frozen, officials said.

That includes $68 million for the Advanced Chemical Technology building in Chicago and $11.8 million for the new Integrated Bioprocessing Research Laboratory at the Urbana campus.

Systemwide, the UI will also receive about $29 million for capital renewal, mostly repairs and renovations.

The higher education budget includes $25 million for a merit-based grant program aimed at middle-class high school seniors that would be matched by Illinois' public universities.

Another bill approved Thursday would give students who receive need-based Monetary Award Program grants some assurance that they'd receive the money for four years. It would create a priority deadline for returning students that would guarantee renewal if they still meet the eligibility requirements. The measure would apply to students at community colleges, public universities and private nonprofit institutions in Illinois.

"College affordability is a huge issue, for parents and students," said Rose, a primary sponsor of both measures. "They want certainty as to what they're in for."

The bills were part of a package designed to stem the flow of Illinois students to out-of-state schools that offer more attractive financial aid packages. Combined, they attack the "brain drain" in Illinois and send a strong message that "Illinois wants to keep our students here," Rose said.

"When we interview students who choose other universities besides one of ours, the top reasons are related to financial barriers," Wilson said. "We've been saying over and over again, if we want to keep the talent in the state of Illinois, we have to provide scholarship support. So this is a welcome initiative."

The UI is losing top students with ACT scores in the 30s to "academically inferior" universities such as Alabama, Indiana or Ohio State, Rose said. Illinois State and Northern Illinois currently lose students to Missouri, Iowa and Michigan State; and Eastern Illinois and other state schools see the same competition from Indiana State, Missouri State or Murray State in Kentucky, he said.

"Now our universities are going to go in and essentially put an award on the table that will be able to match or — in many cases — exceed these other out-of-state universities," he said.

The merit-based scholarship program is open to Illinois families earning up to $148,000, or six times the federal poverty level — $24,000 for a family of four — so it covers a large group of middle-income students, officials said.

"Between MAP, (federal) Pell grants and then this new scholarship program, it can really close the gap for a lot of those students who are making the decision to go elsewhere," said Andrew Borst, admissions director at the UI's Urbana campus.

Schools are "basically getting a two for one" with the state match, giving financial aid dollars a "much more dramatic impact," he said.

Borst wasn't sure how much of the $25 million would flow to the UI, though the campus would likely benefit based on the income criteria.

Borst also praised the four-year commitment for MAP recipients, but worries that might mean less money to go around for the next cohort of students who apply. The MAP program is not fully funded, meaning not all students who are eligible receive the need-based grants, he said.

Proponents say the new merit-based scholarship program could help 6,000-plus students enroll in Illinois universities who otherwise might leave Illinois or not continue their studies after community college.

As for the $25 million cost, Rose said it's part of a balanced budget that includes other cuts. He called it a sound investment for the state, noting that students who stay in Illinois will pay taxes and boost the economy.

Also approved Thursday was a bill creating a College and Career Interest Task Force, to study how public colleges and universities can collect data on high school students' career plans to enhance recruiting.

The original plan was to allow the State Board of Education to survey high school juniors and seniors taking state assessments about their career interests, intended fields of study and grade-point average, though it would have carried an "opt out" provision.

The idea was to give Illinois colleges and universities "a jump on the competition," Rose said. Currently, universities all purchase similar data from ACT or the College Board, which operates the SAT, he said.

But the State Board raised concerns about federal rules on confidentiality, he said.

The task force must submit its finding to lawmakers by Jan. 30, 2019.