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Editorial: Put higher education on strong path to future

Altgeld Hall, on the University of Illinois campus in Urbana, Ill. (AP Photo/The News-Gazette, John Dixon)

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Gov. Rauner and the Legislature have shoved buckets under the leaking financial roofs of Illinois’ public universities by appropriating nearly $1 billion as part of the state’s stopgap budget.

But let’s be clear. Those buckets are nothing like a long-term solution. After slicing away at financial support for higher education for years, the state for most of the past year then cut off funding altogether.

Our state universities are now all but begging for stable and predictable funding. They want firm budgetary commitments of five years or more. Only then can they plan responsibly. If not, they will struggle — as they already are — to simply retain top talent and recruit top students.

To compete and prosper, a state must have a quality public university system, including a great flagship campus. Fortunately, past generations of Illinois leaders built up a strong network of universities, including a flagship school in the University of Illinois that is respected around the world. We can build on that legacy.

EDITORIAL

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In a global knowledge economy, Illinois’ future relies on a highly educated workforce whose ideas can be transformed into jobs and revenue. Of the 20,000 or so students who graduate each year from one of the three University of Illinois campuses, 70 percent remain in the state. If more of those students head elsewhere, the state will suffer. And, on that score, we frankly don’t understand the argument, increasingly heard, that it is the students who benefit — so let them pay the full load of their education alone. As if a public university were nothing but a shopping mall.

A 2015 study by the Idaho firm Economic Modeling Specialists International concluded that for every dollar taxpayers spend on the University of Illinois, they earn an average annual return of 19.3 percent. Try getting that kind of average return in your 401K.

Even at a time of tight finances, the U. of I. is aiming high. Under new president Timothy Killeen, the university has adopted a forward-looking, aspirational “framework” that lists goals ranging from a more diverse student body and faculty to an expansion of global programs and more partnerships with Illinois businesses.

But Springfield must be a willing partner. In response to year-after-year funding cuts, tuition has risen to the point that Illinois has become the nation’s fourth most expensive state for public higher education. In May, the Associated Press reported that worries about the stability of funding have driven down applications at Illinois’ public universities while Western Michigan University expects to enroll its largest freshman class from Illinois ever and Murray State University in Kentucky reports applications from some Illinois border counties are up as much as 40 percent.

Even as the U. of I. goes into overdrive to retain its top faculty, it has lost some of its best professors at least partly because of the budget crisis. If things don’t settle down, Killeen told the Sun-Times Editorial Board Wednesday, he worries he will lose more. You can only take annual budget cuts so long before the damage is permanent.

Just how helpful are those fiscal buckets the state provided? Even combined with an earlier round of emergency funding, the stopgap budget reduces funding for most of Illinois’ public universities by nearly 20 percent from the previous year. Before that, the U. of I.’s funding dropped from $804 milli0n in Fiscal Year 2002 to $649 million in Fiscal Year 2015. And future funding for all of higher education is uncertain.

On July 1, Illinois State University President Larry Dietz said, “What we really need is a budget … that restores the faith and confidence of the people of Illinois who are sending their sons and daughters to us for a good education.”

It took generations to build Illinois’ reputation for excellence in public higher education. We are in danger of squandering that legacy in no time at all.

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