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Editorial: Illinois needs new commitment to higher education

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Illinois needs a long-term plan to get public higher education back on track — starting now.

For decades, higher education has been sort of an emergency release valve in the state budget. Whenever revenues don’t cover expected costs, short-sighted lawmakers take another whack at public universities’ budgets, figuring the schools can make up the difference by raising tuition.

As a result, campus administrators have been cutting costs and tuitions have soared. Illinois has become a large net exporter of college students, meaning far more young people go out of state to college than out-of-state students come here. Illinois high schoolers who once would have attended an Illinois public institution are paying out-of-state tuition at places such as the University of Iowa or Western Michigan.

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In the long term, that hurts Illinois. Students who go to school elsewhere often build ties to their new locations and never return. They don’t become part of Illinois’ economy or help build the state’s future.

Exporting students isn’t the only headache for Illinois. Students who remain in state often can’t get the classes they need to graduate in four years – even if they are top students and don’t change majors. And many students are forced to take on piles of debt just to graduate from a four-year college. Later, their contributions to the economy suffer, as they struggle to repay loans instead of buying homes and cars and starting families.

All that is a glaring failure on the part of state leaders over several administrations. A college student who mismanaged things this badly would be on academic probation.

Understandably, college administrators and legislators right now are focused on the budget meltdown in Springfield. Because of the deadlock that started July 1, public universities aren’t getting their state funding, and they also have to cover for students who aren’t getting their income-based scholarships from the state.

Eastern Illinois University has already laid off staff. Western Illinois University President Jack Thomas is trying to postpone a plan to cut 50 of 632 full-time faculty positions. Southern Illinois University President Randy Dunn says this year’s underfunding is creating a crisis.

But patching together a state budget for this fiscal year won’t be enough. Illinois higher education resembles infrastructure that’s been jury-rigged with duct tape because of years of disinvestment. Professors aren’t getting raises, fewer classes make it harder for students to meet graduation requirements, employees have been laid off.

What’s needed is a new commitment to make Illinois a leader in public higher education.

Just as past generations created land-grant universities across the nation, Illinois needs to invest in higher education to secure a place in the emerging knowledge economy. A state’s middle class is built on a strong public university system, where most students get their undergraduate diplomas. But soaring Illinois tuitions could put college out of reach for many deserving students. In-state students who started in the fall pay $12,036 a year in tuition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 71 percent more than a decade ago. Other Illinois universities have had similar increases.

New U. of I. President Timothy Killeen has said he would like to see a tuition freeze. But that’s just a start. State leaders need to commit to ensuring high-quality, affordable education and stop treating higher education funds as a source of money to fix problems elsewhere in the budget.
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