Our state is on a historic quest for a better economy, for a better tomorrow. Both political parties are adamant that Illinois must do more to create jobs, keep Illinoisans from fleeing the state and give our children hope that our best days are yet to come.
And yet every day, the longer the state’s budget impasse continues, the more one catalyst to that growth we all wish for pays a serious price: our college and university campuses around Illinois.
In his latest budget address, Gov. Bruce 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 Bloomington, the local impact is enormous from three local colleges and universities: $725 million, with more than 4,500 jobs. Just south, in Decatur, nearly $200 million is generated from Millikin University and Richland Community College. From Rockford to Carbondale, Quincy to Champaign and Springfield to the Metro East, 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 to 2015 — 36 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.
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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May 3, 2017 at 09:03PM