Governor, start fixing higher ed in Illinois: How to pour more spending into classrooms and labs

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Gridlock in Springfield is strangling public college finances statewide. The latest casualty: Northeastern Illinois University announced it will cancel three days of classes to cut costs. “On a scale of 1 to 10, my frustration level is at a 22,” says interim President Richard Helldobler.

Other state universities have laid off employees, cut academic and athletic programs, imposed furloughs, postponed maintenance projects, delayed payments to vendors and drained cash reserves.

One alarming result: Students flee to neighboring states with steadier finances and, in some cases, more specialized campuses. In 2015, about 45 percent of high school grads bolted Illinois to attend college, compared with 29 percent who left the state in 2002. Many of these young expats will never return to live and work near their families in Illinois.

Look at the enrollment declines in the graphic accompanying this editorial. Some universities are shrinking away.

It’s a brain drain Illinois can’t afford. How do lawmakers and educators stop it?

Think big. Unify and reorder a university system that foolishly has nine separate boards overseeing 12 state-owned universities. Structure higher ed for an era of pinched budgets. Make schools more accountable for student learning and graduation rates. Streamline procurement and other business operations, then pour a bigger percentage of spending into classrooms and labs. Make sure Illinois never again tolerates a debacle like Chicago State University‘s 11 percent graduation rate. Yes, 11 percent.

Gov. Bruce Rauner asks the right question: Given student demand, does Illinois have too many public universities trampling the same turf? “We have an ecosystem, but we have not been strategic about them working together and about location of that capability,” Rauner says, according to the Peoria Journal Star. “We’ve got to be thoughtful about which degrees (schools) offer. I believe in specialization and being great at certain things and not trying to be OK at a bunch of stuff. Do we need every school to offer the exact same stuff, but they’re two hours from each other? Should we think more strategically about the offerings?”

Yes. Right now, when Illinoisans see the unaffordability of today’s often-redundant campuses and their dwindling enrollments. Yes, students at every school should be able to sample a range of subjects. But if many campuses have only average engineering programs, why not combine talent and resources to create exceptional, maybe world-class programs on one, two or three campuses? Let the schools with so-so engineering programs instead build unique expertise in other fields — humanities, education, fine arts, technology, business, health sciences.

Like a smart corporate consolidation, the idea here is to intensify limited resources in ways that produce excellent — not weak or middling — outcomes.

We’ve heard legislators whisper about merging Eastern Illinois University with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Chicago State with the University of Illinois at Chicago. But those are think-small ideas.

Governor, don’t waste this crisis. Create a master plan to replace Illinois’ balkanized structure of higher ed. There’s a strong model across the border: Wisconsin’s single, centrally-overseen and multitiered system of 26 campuses offering 250 majors. New York and some other states have comparable systems. Illinois students, too, could prosper under a system that deploys resources effectively and sets high expectations for campuses statewide. Unifying schools, of course, would anger politicians who defend fiefdoms in Carbondale or Charleston or Chicago.

Illinois once had a more centralized system that delivered excellent results for students. But in 1995, the General Assembly dismantled what was known as the “system of systems.” One reason: more “local control.” Of state universities? A bigger reason: Some pols were miffed that their alma maters didn’t have separate governing boards like the U. of I.’s.

A 2011 University of Pennsylvania study says Illinois’ 1995 shift to more local control aggravated two problems:

• “An inability to establish shared state goals and priorities for higher education.”

• “A failure to allocate resources strategically to meet state goals and priorities.”

Any plan to unify oversight — let alone to scale back or mothball campuses — will rouse clout-heavy college administrators and alumni to fiercely defend their empires. Ditto the pols, who cherish every misspent dollar that flows into local economies via the colleges.

But the higher ed cash trough is dry. Southern Illinois University President Randy Dunn warned lawmakers last month that “As we go into this next phase of the crisis, with no budget in sight, SIU and many other universities are going to be forced to dismantle and remove units of university operations. If we don’t find a way forward, we have a lot of universities getting ready to walk off the cliff.”

Maybe some should, so others can thrive. Illinois needs one powerful university system with strong oversight, built on this mission: Focus less on this haphazard, redundant sprawl of campuses. Focus more on educating students. And keep more of them in Illinois.

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April 7, 2017 at 09:30AM

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Governor, start fixing higher ed in Illinois: How to pour more spending into classrooms and labs

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