When it comes to ideas on how to shore up the state’s precarious finances, there’s pretty much unanimous agreement that it can’t be done without improving the economy.
More jobs equals more employees equals more people buying homes and spending money on goods and services. And, of course, more people paying taxes. So it’s baffling that a surefire way to jump-start the economy hasn’t been discussed more as the 19-month budget impasse continues.
Higher education is an economic engine, especially for local communities that host public or private universities or colleges. Think of any town with a higher education institution — and then imagine it’s gone. Do the same number of businesses remain? Is the population the same? Does the tax base remain stable?
The answer is “no” to all of those questions. Take Jacksonville: The Illinois Coalition to Invest in Higher Education says MacMurray College and Illinois College combined employ 927 people and generate $88.4 million for the local economy. Statewide, public and private colleges and universities employ 175,000 people and generate more than $50 billion in economic activity. There is a $25 return on every $1 the state invests in higher education, the coalition contends.
Any business would be overjoyed with a 25:1 return, and yet it seems there is rarely talk about higher education being part of the solution to the state’s financial problems. An educated pool of candidates would draw more businesses to the state. Entrepreneurial students could start their own companies if they get a top-notch education. Stable community colleges can nimbly respond by creating programs that target the specific needs of local towns. The more students enrolled and faculty employed, the greater the need for support services that assist the schools’ operations.
A strong higher education system is vital to a thriving economy. But in Illinois, state leaders haven’t nurtured those institutions. Per-pupil spending by the state has been cut by 54 percent from 2008 to 2016, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. That leaves tuition to make up the difference; average state tuition was $4,786 in fiscal year 2002, compared to $13,462 in FY 2015. Granted, a large part of that problem is that an ever-larger share of the funding provided by the state has to go to pension obligations —a key reason why pension reform needs to also be a priority for Illinois legislators.
Colleges and universities were not paid during the impasse; at least one coalition member said money provided by the six-month stopgap budget went to pay for expenses in the 2015-2016 academic year, so there has been no state funding for the current year. There have been hundreds of layoffs throughout the state at universities and colleges. Programs have been cut. Chicago State University faces the possibility of closure; others may follow.
Funding for the Monetary Award Program, which provides grants to low-income students, was halted. Many universities and colleges have provided MAP grant funding, as they are unwilling to punish their most vulnerable students because of the failure of lawmakers to appropriate money.
The coalition said an estimated 16,000 students left the state in 2014 to go to college elsewhere. That’s lost tuition, room and board, and other expenses in Illinois communities for at least four years. How likely are they to return to start businesses, buy homes and other goods, and pay taxes here? It’s also become harder for colleges to recruit and retain faculty, as they seek places with more stability.
Like all government agencies, there likely are areas that can be cut in higher education. Examine administration to see if there is bloat. Have leaders from each campus meet with business leaders to discuss if there is too much duplication of programs among the schools. If there is, consider having each campus specialize in a few areas. Create a vision as to what higher education in Illinois should be, and then provide annual appropriations so colleges and universities know the resources they have at their disposal.
An outline of that vision was sketched by Gov. Bruce Rauner during his State of the State address, where he said it was critical to the state’s success to help research universities like the University of Illinois and Southern Illinois University extend their footprints in the state, and form alliances with institutions like Northwestern and University of Chicago to expand research and innovation efforts.
Rauner’s business background would prove invaluable to pursuing an endeavor that would create the Midwest technology and innovation center he would like to see in Illinois. It’s an idea in need of a champion; we may just have one in the governor. But first, let’s get the funding resolved and stop starving higher ed. In the long run, it’s a smart business investment for the state.
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February 8, 2017 at 12:07PM