Illinois’ gubernatorial candidates have repeatedly spoken of the need to reform higher education.

And for good reason. Data indicate young Illinois adults are more likely to attend out-of-state colleges than their peers in 48 out of 50 states. Research indicates they’ll likely settle in those places for good.

OPINION

Even more disturbing, tens of thousands of young college students in Illinois are struggling to complete their degrees each year, never mind doing so on time. They’re piling up student loan debt, struggling to repay it and experiencing a cascade of family strains as a result. By cutting aid to higher education, the state Legislature made matters worse.

Illinois should do what Indiana and Tennessee have done, only better. It should implement a debt-free college promise plan for talented, hardworking, low- and middle- income students who wish to attend the state’s two- and four-year public institutions of higher education. It should invest to boost completion rates and hold colleges accountable for results. It’s foolish to ignore the state’s brain drain and degree-completion shortfall.

Because state budget cuts force colleges to raise tuition, the average net price for in-state students at Illinois’ public four-year colleges (tuition, fees, room, and board, minus financial aid) increased 8.5 percent in constant dollars between 2009 and 2014. In comparison, nearby Wisconsin reduced average net price by 4 percent.

Among Illinois’ community colleges, the trend is even worse, with the average net price rising over 15 percent over that same five-year period. Compare Michigan’s community colleges that reduced their prices by nearly 5 percent.

Springfield has cut need-based aid to low-income students with the Monetary Award Program, going from covering 100 percent of tuition and fees at public universities in 2002 to covering only 32 percent of those costs today. Furthermore, only 42 percent of eligible students receive MAP Grants.

No wonder Illinois’s public college enrollment decreased by 72,000 students over the past two years.

The exodus has broken the hearts of parents and students who would like to go to school close to family and hurt already pinched colleges, with estimates putting lost tuition and fees at $215 million per year.

There’s a path to a better future – a genuine college affordability promise plan.

The research indicates a quality college promise plan that keeps students in Illinois, frees them from crippling debt, and drives degree attainment should: (1) leverage high school improvement so students enter college better prepared to succeed, (2) ensure a college counselor in every high school responsible for supporting increased college access and heightened, speedier degree completion, (3) invest in and hold colleges accountable for producing better degree attainment results, and yes, (4) provide a debt-free guarantee to students attending a public college that (5) covers all costs – not just tuition and fees.

Illinois will need new revenue to cover this policy, but that is a wise investment. The public makes a 10 percent return on its investment in higher education because college graduates earn more and are less reliant on public benefits. Indeed, the earnings (and tax payments) of bachelor’s degree recipients are nearly double those of high school graduates. In Illinois, among 25-64-year-olds, median earnings are more than double for those with a bachelor’s degree than those with only a high school diploma — $52,000 to $23,000, respectively.

And students stay loyal to the state and region that educated them. In Chicago, 70 percent of college graduates choose to stay in the metro area after graduation.

If prospective students never enroll in Illinois colleges, those new graduates and their millions of dollars in earnings and taxes end up elsewhere.

Make college students a real promise, and you’ll keep them in the state. You’ll grow the economy for the long-term, and all of Illinois will benefit.

Konrad Mugglestone is a Senior Policy Analyst with Education Reform Now, the think tank affiliate of the advocacy group Democrats for Education Reform.

Erin Steva is the Midwest Director with Young Invincibles, a nonprofit committed to expanding economic opportunity for young adults.