SIC President Ready to put 2020 in the Rearview

January 4, 2021

It was Nelson Mandela who said something to the effect that we should be judged not only by our successes, but also by how many times we fell down and then got back up. Southeastern Illinois College, like all Illinois community colleges, survived a two-year budget stalemate only to get hit by a global pandemic—and because of the great work we do together, we’re still here and creating success! But it's time to put 2020 in our rearview window.

We’re not “out of the woods” yet, and face new challenges in 2021, but perhaps some reprieve from the daily pandemic crisis is within sight. If we can just hold out a little longer and stay the course, we all may emerge from this situation a little wiser and stronger. 

Spring will be different, of course, but we hope to ease out of the abnormal back to the new normal along the way, given the vaccine process. We need to celebrate the victories we’ve won and take a deep breath. (That’s almost a requirement.) However, we also need to know that the aftermath of the pandemic will have lasting effects on society and, in particular, all of higher education.

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published three stories about higher education finance, enrollment, and the reality of tomorrow for our profession.  In a nutshell, these are the key points:

  • Moody’s and Fitch predict revenue declines of 5 to10 percent across the sector next year, and a lengthy road back after that. (Dec. 8, 2020)
  • Two-year public institutions nationwide suffered the largest fall undergraduate-enrollment decrease of any higher-education sector by far. (Nov. 12, 2020)
  • Colleges Grapple with Grim Financial Realities” (Nov. 30, 2020)

As for Illinois and SIC, those grim truths must be faced as they just won’t disappear.  For example, Illinois has just begun “first steps” toward filling a budget hole of an expected $3.9 billion.

Community colleges expect cuts from the state, as the failure of the progressive income tax will force legislators to reduce expenses, most likely including higher education. Compounding those cuts will be loss of tuition from students who have decided or been forced not to pursue higher education, suggesting the precarious vulnerability (fiscal, social, etc.) of many of our students.

We’ve recently heard of challenges facing private institutions, but the same woes in higher education will affect state schools, and in some ways will be even more challenging without those huge endowments of privates. For example, regarding community colleges and universities that serve populations with reduced incomes, a recent survey from Community College Daily stated that there was a 30% drop among high school graduates who enrolled this fall.  Knowing there are fewer high school students nationwide for some time to come, higher education will be forced to constantly reinvent itself.

Community colleges will continually have to adapt and change to the numbers we’re given, be they fiscal or enrollment.  As a member of the Illinois Board of Higher Education Strategic Plan for Higher Education, I have learned from my participation in this statewide group that higher education must remain nimble, open for change, and willing to adjust according to data.

I look forward to working through these challenges with our state leadership, my colleagues, my SIC family and the dedicated Board members who provide steady, consistent leadership through challenging times. I know that we will come back in the fall of 2021 stronger than ever. 

Let’s focus on the road ahead and not on the tracks we left behind.

~By Southeastern Illinois College President Jonah Rice, Ph.D.