Lately, the biggest obstacle before La Madrid’s education has been the budget standoff in Sacramento. For 100 days this summer and fall, California operated without a budget. The political stalemate over how to close a massive deficit prevented the state from paying $8.3 billion in bills — a backlog that included La Madrid’s state financial aid check. The state’s community colleges estimate that 41,000 students, or 60 percent of Cal Grant recipients at community colleges, have been left hanging in the same situation this fall.
Without a Cal Grant, La Madrid has been stressing about money as much as his studies. He’s been borrowing groceries from his roommate and has contemplated taking a second job. He has several friends facing similar hardships. “We rely on the state for the grants,” La Madrid says. “I just cross my fingers and hope it comes soon. It’s pretty much my life.”
The delays were not the result of a policy choice to cut back on financial aid or to minimize the role of community colleges. Indeed, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who attended Santa Monica City College in the 1960s, told a national group of community college administrators last year that the schools are “institutions of hope” and could lead the country out of the recession. But dysfunctional politics around California’s budget are making it difficult for the colleges to fulfill that promise.
Of course, Illinois also put colleges in a tough spot.
Cash flow is so crimped that as of the end of September, the state of Illinois owed its community colleges and universities close to $600 million. That’s more than one-third of the state’s entire budget for higher ed.
On the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago, it’s easy to see the effects. The university’s flagship building, 28-story University Hall, is literally falling apart. The concrete skin of the building is flaking off, exposing the rusted steel of rebar beneath. Canopies surround the building to keep pieces of falling concrete from hitting students and staffers on their way in. University Hall is one of three buildings on campus surrounded by protective platforms.
UIC officials aren’t planning on fixing up the buildings anytime soon. Checks from Springfield trickle in as many as six months late — the pattern is too unreliable for doing long-term planning. So administrators are trying to keep cash on hand to simply make payroll and keep the university functioning. Other universities have struggled even to do that. This spring, Southern Illinois University, then owed $140 million by the state, started planning for the possibility of shutting down its four campuses in the middle of the school year.
Illinois lawmakers had no money to alleviate the problem, so they gave colleges the authority to borrow on their own to ease the pressure.