David W. Tretter: State higher education being devalued


Drive down Main Street in Decatur and you would think it would be hard to miss nearly $200 million on a couple of pieces of prime real estate. Yet that’s exactly what seems to be happening at the state Capitol these days.

In his latest budget address, Gov. Rauner again proposed cuts to higher education. He called for a small increase in funds for the Monetary Award Program, but MAP grants haven’t been funded this year. The last two years of devastating funding cuts to MAP grants and operating funds for Illinois colleges and universities have been only an extreme example of 15 years of defunding, devaluing and dismantling this state’s once nationally ranked higher education system.

Higher education has its perception problems: charges of inefficiency, duplicative programs and administrative bloat. But try telling the leaders of many communities around the state that those concerns are worth the costs of draconian funding cuts.

In Decatur, the impact that Millikin University and Richland Community College have is undeniable. Combined, they annually generate more than $190 million and nearly 2,000 jobs in local economic impact. Think about the damage caused when those institutions face the current struggles and have to make very difficult decisions.

The impact there from the two colleges is significant, but far from unique. From Rockford to Carbondale, Quincy to Champaign, colleges and universities drive local economies and prepare our next generation of leaders and workforce. Yet the longer this budget impasse runs, the more paralyzed our system becomes – and the more the costs of this crisis grow.

It’s too easy to ignore higher education’s value and benefits, because we take them for granted. As the state has cut more than $1 billion from 2000-2015 – 36.4 percent – in higher education funding and aid for students, we fail to appreciate how much a role colleges and universities play to provide higher average salaries, better health, longer employment, more tax support for local services, and much more.

As the House, Senate and governor debate approving a full-year budget or more short-term help through stopgap/lifeline solutions, higher education withers away. It’s not that our policymakers can’t recognize the need for urgent action when economic crisis rears its head. When Exelon, Sears and CME needed help, or when other businesses asked for incentives to stay and expand here, those calls were heard and addressed. Why not higher education? After all, it’s a mammoth employer: $50 billion in economic impact annually, with 800,000 students and 175,000 employees in more than 200 locations.

As the discussion at the Capitol centers on Illinois’ economic recovery and building a stronger workforce and tax base, slashing higher ed is hypocritical, counterproductive and digging our hole deeper. Students are choosing out-of-state schools or skipping college altogether. Others are deciding not to come back after going away for school. Talented faculty and staff are laid off and leaving for better opportunities elsewhere. And with each blow, the recovery takes much longer than the initial damage.

Until the trend in funding for higher education is reversed, the promise of a better Illinois is an illusion. A state without a plan is a state with a very dim future.

Don’t miss another special section.

David W. Tretter is President of the Federation of Independent Illinois Colleges and Universities, and a leader of the Illinois Coalition to Invest in Higher Education.

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April 26, 2017 at 04:42AM

David W. Tretter: State higher education being devalued

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