Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of editorials put together by the State Journal-Register in Springfield that detail the decline presided over by state government in Illinois.
One could argue the state’s nearly two-year budget impasse has been most visible at the state’s public universities and community colleges.
Students aren’t getting their MAP grants. Faculty, staff and administrators are being laid off. There is concern one or more of the state’s public universities might shut its doors. In just one day in April, the bond ratings of six universities were downgraded, as rating agency S&P determined the uncertainty of state funding for higher education made them a bad risk for investors.
Perhaps most embarrassing was this: In April, a national report from the State Higher Education Executive Officers association on higher education finances in 2016 spotlighted Illinois as an outlier. That status was cemented due to per-student funding falling by 80 percent year over year, from $10,986 to $2,196, while enrollment at public institutions plunged by 46,000 students (or 11 percent).
Illinois was so bad that if you include it in the report, overall public support for higher education funding fell by 1.8 percent. Remove the Land of Lincoln, and overall support for higher education nationally increased by 3.2 percent.
Illinois needs outstanding higher education facilities that produce knockout research, breathtaking innovation and graduates eager to conquer the world. To do that, universities and colleges need focused strategic plans — and that is only going to happen when there is stability that comes from having a state budget.
As in other sectors, pension reform (see Thursday’s editorial of our Sounding the Alarm series for more) is key to freeing up more resources for instruction. A study of Illinois by the State Higher Education Executive Officers found that in fiscal year 2015, retirement appropriations consumed 44.3 percent of the total funding for higher education in Illinois. In 2007, it had been just 10.3 percent.
That’s a depressing and sobering shift. In fiscal year 2000, about $218.2 million in state funding was dedicated to pensions, according to the Illinois Board of Higher Education, and $2.13 billion went to operations funding. Fast forward to fiscal year 2015 (the last year there was a permanent state budget), and $1.55 billion went to pay off pension debt — nearly as much as the $1.95 billion the state spent on the actual teaching, research and support operations.
And who has borne the brunt of that shift? Students and their parents have forked over more to help bridge the difference. Average tuition and fees at public universities in Illinois were $4,786 in fiscal year 2002. They had more than tripled to $13,462 by fiscal year 2015, according to the Illinois Board of Higher Education.
The restructuring of the state’s pension debt will free up significant funds to actually be spent on instructional costs. So would making all new hires go into a self-managed plan retirement (already an option in the State University Retirement System), and allowing any current employees the option of switching to such a plan.
But stable funding is just a start for retooling our institutions of higher education. It’s time for a thorough examination of what they should be and a commitment to making our institutions centers of achievement that spur economic growth in Illinois.
Most of the four-year public universities in Illinois were established as regional education centers. They offered similar programs, with the thinking that students in those areas wouldn’t have to travel far for their education. That made sense 100 years ago when traveling was more difficult, but if the number of students who are heading out of state for college is any indication, they are willing to travel if it means access to excellent programs.
Universities are, and need to remain, the economic drivers of their home communities. Figures shared by the Illinois Coalition to Invest in Higher Education show that colleges and universities in Illinois employ 175,000 people statewide and generate more than $50 billion in economic activity. For every $1 the state spends on higher ed, it gets $25 back. It’s an outstanding value.
But each campus should have designated areas of specialization. In today’s specialized world, universities must adapt and put aside the notion that they can be all things to all people. Program offerings should be evaluated, and under-enrolled programs must be pruned, allowing institutions to focus on their strongest offerings.
Doing that might mean revamping the structure of the schools: Does each one need a board, or should we perhaps mirror our neighbor to the north? The University of Wisconsin system oversees 13 four-year universities and 13 freshman-sophomore UW Colleges campuses, which provides efficiencies in administration. Illinois needs to examine that. A 2015 report by the Illinois Senate Democratic Caucus found that the number of full-time administrative staff at public universities ballooned by 31.1 percent from 2004 to 2010. But during the same time period, the number of full-time faculty increased by just 1.8 percent, and there was only a 2.3 percent increase in part- and full-time students.
The last two years of belt tightening in the absence of a budget and funding have likely changed those numbers, and we understand the definition of “administration” in Illinois needs to be refined as it can include positions that no one would consider administration.
We aren’t ready to recommend a UW System of management — but we believe it’s a question that needs to be answered, and the Illinois Board of Higher Education should start that conversation now as a means toward setting a solid plan for the system’s future.
But make no mistake — the governor and General Assembly need to resolve the budget crisis and make the investment in higher ed that Illinois needs to make it a competitive, healthy state.
— Coming soon in the SJ-R editorial board’s Sounding the Alarm series: Changes to taxes and consolidating governments needed to get Illinois’ fiscal ship in order.
01-All No Sub,02-Pol,12-Coll,16-Econ,22-Talk,HE Blog
via Opinion – Journal Star http://ift.tt/1yRejYC
May 20, 2017 at 11:59AM