A plan by Republican state lawmakers to revamp the Illinois higher education system has received polite responses from educators, but elements of the newly introduced legislation already are getting push-back.
“The goal here is first and foremost to get us back to a space where higher education is affordable and accessible,” state Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, told Illinois News Network. “This is the beginning of a conversation, not a final product.”
Rose authored the higher education overhaul with Sen. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington.
The legislation would create a uniform admission application for all the universities, guarantee access to an Illinois public university for any high school student who maintains a “B” average, create a ranking system showing which university departments are the most successful and put in place economic-efficiency reviews for the campuses.
Concerns about the state’s higher education system were evident even before the state’s two-year budget stalemate cut funding to the system, according to a news release from the Illinois Senate Republican Caucus. Enrollment dropped by 50,000 students between the years 1991 and 2014, the release said.
During that same time period, universities and colleges expanded their offerings, and some universities switched from being commuter campuses to dormitory systems, Rose said.
“We have 12 campuses trying to be all things to all people,” he said.
But Rose acknowledges the budget stalemate was not helpful for higher education and said his legislation would provide the Illinois Board of Higher Education more teeth to coordinate higher education policies and enforce statewide priorities.
The idea for a common application likely is to gain broad support among higher education officials and the public, he said, noting that university campuses currently have individual application filing fees.
“The part of this that I can see happening fairly quickly is that common application,” Rose said.
That might not be the case for the ranking system for university departments, however.
“That’s the part that causes heartburn for higher education,” he said.
Indeed, John Jackson, a visiting political science professor at the Paul Simon Institute at Southern Illinois University, said attempts to rank universities’ success have been contentious and that a vast amount of academic literature has been written about it.
“That one’s a perfectly terrible idea,” Jackson told Illinois News Network. “It’s not at all clear what are the reliable and valid ways to rank departments.”
Rose’s legislation lists an array of criteria that could be used to rank university departments, such as graduation rates, unique faculty qualifications, job placement rates, access to underserved populations and the relative value of a degree based on earnings potential.
The state senator also has criticized priorities and planning within the system of higher education. One project that Rose mentions frequently is an $82.5 million proposal to build a science, technology, engineering and math building at the University of Illinois at Springfield when there’s already a world-class engineering program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. At the same time, other university campuses have been waiting to upgrade their outdated science buildings, he said.
“This [legislation] gives teeth to the Board of Higher Education to become the traffic cop and forces them to go through some thoughtful analysis” about expanding programs, Rose said.
But Jackson said examples of duplication of resources within the university system are way overhyped. University campuses each need a core of general education offerings to attract students, he said.
“Otherwise, you’re a college or a trade school,” Jackson said.
He also questioned what would happen if a ranking system showed that an English department at one campus was not up to par. Would that university then not have a right to an English department, Jackson asks.
The state Board of Higher Education now is empowered to have a master plan in place and set priorities for higher education on a statewide basis, he said.
“Things are not nearly as out of whack as critics of higher education indicate,” Jackson said.
But state lawmakers have every right to examine such issues and speak to the IBHE about the future direction of higher education in the state, according to Jackson, who said the legislation’s stated goals of providing increased access to higher education and reducing bureaucracy were positive.
“On the face of it, it looks reasonable and fairly harmless in terms of trying to get people to the place where they would be most successful,” he said.
Others in the education field also seem receptive to discussing the ideas presented in the legislation.
“We’re in the process of reviewing their proposal and will work with them during the upcoming legislative session,” Thomas Hardy, spokesman for the University of Illinois System, told Illinois News Network.
Meanwhile, Rose signaled he wants to take a comprehensive look at how administrators are running individual campuses.
“These guys are all trying to build fiefdoms,” he said. “We’ve had 30 years of free-for-all and mission creep … build, build, build.”