Peoria and Caterpillar are closely linked, and for many good economic reasons. But as you cross into the city on I-74 over the Illinois River, it’s hard to think another set of employers generating more than $400 million a year locally could be ignored. Yet that’s exactly what is happening at the state Capitol.
In his 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 Illinois colleges and universities are only an extreme example of 15 years of devaluing and dismantling this state’s once nationally ranked higher education system.
Higher education has its perception problems: 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 Peoria, Bradley University, Methodist College and Illinois Central College generate 1,800 jobs and $415 million in local economic impact. That is far from unique. From Rockford to Carbondale, Quincy to Champaign, colleges and universities drive local economies and prepare our next generation of workers and leaders. Yet the longer this budget impasse runs, the more paralyzed our system becomes — and the more the costs of this crisis grow.
We take higher education 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 in providing higher average salaries, better health, longer employment, more tax support for local services and more.
As the House, Senate and governor debate approving a full-year budget or more short-term help, higher education withers away. It’s not that our policymakers can’t recognize the need for urgent action. When Exelon, Sears and CME needed help, or when other businesses asked for incentives to stay and expand here, those calls were 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.
Slashing higher ed is hypocritical and counterproductive. Students are choosing out-of-state schools or skipping college altogether. Others decide not to come back after going away. Talented faculty and staff are laid off or leaving for opportunities elsewhere.
Until the trend in funding for higher education is reversed, the promise of a better Illinois is an illusion.
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. He lives in Springfield.
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May 12, 2017 at 11:50AM