“In the coming years, jobs requiring at least an associate degree are projected to grow twice as fast as jobs requiring no college experience. We will not fill those jobs – or keep those jobs on our shores – without the training offered by community colleges.”

President Obama

Illinois Must Not Abandon Its Community Colleges

As the leaders of Illinois fail to pass a budget, we are watching some of our most important educational assets wither away in the communities that need them most.

Community colleges are critical to Illinois’ success. While increased demand for skilled workers makes higher education more important than ever, the cost of a university education has risen steadily across the country and in Illinois. Community colleges fill this gap.

Business leaders, politicians, and academics get it. President Obama has committed to improving community colleges, saying “In the coming years, jobs requiring, at least, an associate degree are projected to grow twice as fast as jobs requiring no college experience. We will not fill those jobs – or keep those jobs on our shores – without the training offered by community colleges.”

The US Chamber of Commerce found that those with an associate’s degrees in Illinois earn an average of $9,000 more each year than their peers with a high school diploma and have an unemployment rate that is 4% lower. Community colleges have garnered support from business leaders and the federal government, yet Illinois is threatening their very existence by withholding funding to keep them going.

Illinois’ forty-eight public two-year institutions serve nearly 275,000 students throughout the state. Unfortunately, the current budget impasse in Illinois is threatening the survival of some of the state’s community colleges. Illinois has been without a state budget since July 1st when the current fiscal year began. The state operates on an annual budget of about $40 billion. Most institutions have been able to survive because their money comes from the $35 billion of funding that the state is legally bound to pay. That is not the case for community colleges, which get their state funding from the $5 billion slice that is not guaranteed. So to fund them,  we need a budget.

Some community colleges in Illinois rely more on the state than others. Their funding streams come from a combination of state funding, local property taxes, and student tuition. Initially, community colleges were intended to receive a third of their funding from each of these sources. In recent years, community colleges have had to rely increasingly on property taxes and student tuition fees to operate, as states have tightened their budgets.

The amount of funding that Illinois provides to community colleges throughout the state varies significantly, ranging from 5%-40% of their overall budgets. Community colleges that serve lower income communities, those that most need the services that community colleges offer, are most impacted by the reduced state spending. Community colleges in low-income neighborhoods tend to require state money for a higher proportion of their funding because they have lower property tax revenues.

As the state enters its seventh month without a budget, many community colleges now have to think about which programs they’ll first have to cut. Since the budget crisis began, they have been able to fund their current programs using student tuition fees and property taxes, but that money is quickly drying up. Community colleges often must make decisions regarding their operations months in advance, such as which classes to offer and what teachers to hire for the coming semester.

Ample evidence shows that a community college education connects individuals to employment opportunities and increases the wages of low-income workers. Cutting funding for these vital institutions that improve employment prospects for Illinois students and workers is not the solution to any of our problems.

As the federal government and other states expand the role of community colleges and recognize their importance in meeting the demands of the modern economy, Illinois is walking away from its community colleges. It is essential that Illinois resume funding to community colleges so that young adults and low-income workers can continue to use them as an important stepping-stone to new careers and financial independence for  themselves and their families.