Illinois higher education is on path to permanent damage

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Northern Illinois University’s Altgeld Hall. | Provided photo

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Each day without a budget in Illinois, our college communities move a bit closer toward permanent damage.

Last week, the Senate’s Higher Education Committee heard from top public university officials about how their institutions are doing 21 months into a budget standoff.

Nine universities have dealt with two years’ worth of 34 percent cuts. Southern Illinois University President Randy Dunn told senators his institution cannot survive until the 2018 election “short of hollowing out” core programs, particularly at its Carbondale campus, according to the Daily Egyptian. The southern Illinois region already has been suffering as mining and manufacturing jobs have disappeared.

Illinois State University President Larry Dietz told committee members public universities in Illinois already have been “severely, perhaps irreparably damaged.”


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Governors State University officials just said they plan to cut 22 programs and increase tuition 15 percent after already cutting 35 degrees and certificate programs in the past two years, noted Moody’s Investors Service.

Northeastern Illinois University announced its campus would be closed over spring break and 300 student jobs would be cut, the Chicago Tribune reported, before announcing they would be brought back after those students and another 800 employees take five furlough days.

Adding official injury to 21 months of insult, Moody’s issued a report on Illinois universities and community colleges. “Illinois will fare worse than its regional and national peers with decreasing numbers of high school students over the next 15 years. … Illinois is already a net exporter of high school graduates with net out migration of nearly 17,000 students in fall 2014, the second highest of any state in the country,” a release said.

State Sen. Bill Cunningham, a Chicago Democrat who is vice chair of the higher education committee, saw it firsthand last year when his own daughter was deciding where to go to school. She’s pursuing nursing at ISU, he said in an interview, but many of her friends went out of state.

“You can enroll in any one of these state schools,” he said, “but the problem is the major you choose may not be offered in your junior or senior year, or an entire college could be gone.”

Thirty or forty years ago, fewer students left the state for college because in-state schools gave homegrown kids a tuition break. That gap is gone, Cunningham said.

Sen. Tom Rooney is a Rolling Meadows Republican freshman who has taught at West Leyden High School for 21 years. He said he is more concerned about the students from Ohio and Indiana who would have chosen the University of Illinois’ engineering school or ISU’s teaching program but won’t now after hearing about Illinois gridlock.

“When numbers start to drop,” he told me, “that feeds itself. These reputational things tend to grow.” The word spreads to faculty, making it harder to attract good professors. Then college town landlords have trouble renting and the corner pizza joint shuts down. Before we know it, entire communities created by the local college are withering.

We are choking the oxygen from our state’s future.

One possible solution sponsored by Cunningham is Senate Bill 222, pursued by the University of Illinois, which would create a compact between the university and the state. In return for a guaranteed level of state funding for several years, the university agrees to meet set goals for graduation rates, acceptance of in-state students, keeping tuition at or lower than the consumer price index, minority enrollment rates and more. Cunningham believes that’s an approach other colleges might want to pursue. He agrees with Gov. Bruce Rauner that Illinois’ universities could stand to cut some procurement, lobbying and other staff.

Rauner talks more often publicly about K-12 education, but was asked Friday about the college crisis on WBEZ Chicago Public Radio’s “Ask the Governor” program.

“I do believe there is an important role for state government to support a good state university system. I do support that,” Rauner said, adding he believes colleges suffer from bloat, “unfunded pensions, hugely expensive pensions, very expensive work rules and restrictions and labor structure. … Our money is not getting into the classroom with the students and the teachers.”

In fact, while some university pensions for administrators might be generous, the current average university pension is $51,115.

Decades ago, Cunningham noted, colleges had regional governing boards so that not every school needed its own purchasing and lobbying staff. It might be time to return to that model.

First and foremost, Rauner and Democrats need to breathe fresh oxygen into passing a budget.

“I hesitate to use the word permanent,” Cunningham said, “but I think we’re very close to causing permanent damage to a number of our public universities. There’s a real reputational damage being done to our universities and that takes years to fix.”

Lawmakers reconvene Tuesday. Here’s hoping they find a way to revive our colleges, and our future.

Madeleine Doubek is publisher of Reboot Illinois.

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