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Editorial: Massive cuts to higher education a loser for Illinois

Back in 2009, the president of Southern Illinois University told us: “All of the state’s universities are in crisis mode right now.”

EDITORIAL

That was before statewide higher education budget cuts totaling $500 million in the last five years. And before Gov. Bruce Rauner said he wants to chop another $387 million, or 31.5 percent, from next year’s budget. For the University of Illinois’ three campuses, that would come to a $209 million cut.

That’s the challenge U. of I. President Timothy Killeen now faces, having taken over leadership of the state’s flagship university on Monday. In a meeting Tuesday with the Sun-Times Editorial Board, Killeen said he hopes to convince Rauner and the state Legislature that “human capital development” is the long-range solution to Illinois’ staggering fiscal challenges — and that means protecting universities from even more massive budget cuts.

Killeen said he well aware Illinois faces a big “budget crunch” and he is taking a “deep dive” into the U. of I.’s expenses to see what money can be saved without compromising “excellence and integrity.” The governor gave him a “homework” assignment, he said, and he’s hard at work on it.

But, at the end of the day, how great can a state be without a top-tier flagship public university? As Killeen said, every well-trained university graduate is an “economic engine” for the state. And how much can a top university’s budget be chopped before it topples to the second tier or even third?

Without public universities, there wouldn’t be much of a middle class. Eighty percent of Americans who get undergraduate diplomas earn them at public institutions of higher education. But as states have cut support, tuition has soared. In Illinois, tuition is half again as high as just a decade ago, threatening to put college out of reach for many deserving students.

To aid students, Killeen vows to keep a tuition freeze in place for this coming academic year and to avoid “backdoor privatizing,” in which public universities make up for funding cuts by admitting more full-pay out-of-state students and fewer who qualify for in-state discounts. And he’s digging for those cost-savings, though he acknowledges that years of budget cuts mean no low-hanging fruit remains.

For too many years, Springfield has taken money out of higher education to meet needs elsewhere. It is not dissimilar to the way Springfield failed to fund its pension systems to meet needs elsewhere.

Cheaping out on pension funding didn’t work out so well. And it won’t work out so well for higher education.