The state of Illinois is a difficult business partner these days, as most institutions and businesses who depend on funding from Springfield are painfully aware.
Locally, there is no larger institution that depends on the state than Northern Illinois University, which also happens to be the area’s largest employer and economic driver.
Funding from the state – not counting ever-growing payments to the State University Retirement System – has been cut in 6 of the past 13 years, and NIU now receives the same level of state aid that it did in 1995, university officials have said. State funding accounts for about 20 percent of NIU’s budget.
Meanwhile, tuition increases for students have become an annual occurrence, with this year’s tuition hike set at 2 percent. This year’s freshman class will pay tuition rates 14 percent higher than the senior class, which, by state law, has had their tuition level frozen since they entered NIU.
Funding from the state is unreliable, and enrollment levels can be susceptible to the economic climate, but the university can secure its own funding by seeking private donations, including to its endowment fund.
Endowments are cash gifts given by friends of the university. They can be invested with the proceeds used to cover the costs of operating the university or for specified purposes, including teaching, scholarships, and more.
Building the university’s fund will be one challenge that new NIU President Douglas Baker will confront during his tenure here. It is critical that the university insulate itself as much as possible from Illinois’ difficult financial situation.
The NIU Foundation, which manages the university’s endowments, had about $51.1 million on hand in June 2012, according to a February report from the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Although NIU is the state’s third-largest university, it is fifth in the endowment category. The University of Illinois system was tops at $1.7 billion; Southern Illinois had $93.3 million; Illinois State had $84.3 million; and Eastern Illinois had $56.5 million.
NIU has had its share of important donors who helped bring new buildings to the campus. The Kenneth and Ellen Chessick practice facility is being built with the help of a $3 million gift from the Chessicks that was the second-largest ever given the university.
There also are opportunities for more. The university’s new residence hall complex, which should help draw new students, can’t be called “New Residence Hall” forever, for example.
Finding people who owe their success in part to the education they received at NIU and persuading them to contribute to its ongoing success is an important role for a university president to play.
Hopefully as the years go by, Baker and his lieutenants can help build the endowment funds at the university in order to offer more to students and keep college accessible to students, a growing number of whom will find the cost daunting in the years to come.