Budget cuts are taking the heaviest toll on colleges that serve the neediest students

When a state budget impasse drained money from public universities and colleges in Illinois beginning in 2015, some were forced to lay off hundreds of employees, shorten their semesters, even warn they might shut down. Enrollment plummeted. Credit ratings fell to junk status. Chicago State University, for instance, which has a student body that is mainly black and Hispanic and drawn from its neighborhood on the city’s South Side, cut 300 workers from its payroll and — its very future in limbo — managed to attract fewer than 100 new freshmen in the fall. The flagship University of Illinois, far more of whose students are white and wealthier, was not immune from the predicament. But with cash reserves to tap, and an increase in enrollment that brought in more tuition revenue, it has suffered a far less drastic impact from the still-ongoing budget crisis. States have cut spending on higher education since the last recession by a collective $8.7 billion a year, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, or CBPP. That will come as no surprise to students and families who have seen their tuition at four-year colleges and universities rise as a result by an average of 33 percent during that time. But the cuts have been uneven. A closer look shows they’re taking a greater toll on colleges and universities such as Chicago State that serve low-income and nonwhite students, while flagships that enroll larger proportions of whites from higher-income families have been less affected. Among the reasons is that flagship schools have other sources of income to fall back on, including endowments, research funding, deep-pocketed donors, and out-of-state and international students who can afford to pay a premium tuition price. Community colleges and other, regional public universities don’t have those advantages. Related: The rich-poor divide on America’s college campuses is getting wider, fast “There’s an old saying that budget cuts give flagships a cold and regional campuses pneumonia,” said Tom Harnisch, director of state relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. Community colleges spend $10,804 per student on education, down $531 per student since before the recession. Public flagship universities spend $17,252, up $404. Critics say the cuts are also due to politics and to new rules tying state spending to institutions’ performance on such things as graduation rates, putting colleges that take students who are less well prepared at a disadvantage. Whatever the cause, those critics say, the trend is further widening the racial and socioeconomic divide among different types of universities and colleges, shifting money away from those whose students generally need the most support in favor of the ones whose students generally need the least. Eighty-three percent of Chicago State’s students are black and Hispanic and about the same proportion have incomes low enough to qualify for federal financial aid, U.S. Department of Education figures show. That compares to 14 percent of the students at the University of Illinois’s principal Champaign-Urbana campus who are black and Hispanic and 21 percent who are low-income. “We’re creating a caste system in public higher education,” Harnisch said. “The per-student funding is higher for students at public flagships who are often the most prepared and most likely to graduate, but at the community colleges and the regional universities, it’s significantly less.” Related:...

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