Illinois’ education environment has been extremely volatile for the last couple of years. State funding for our state’s public colleges and universities has significantly decreased, schools are laying off faculty members, library hours have been reduced and maintenance work has been delayed. Low-income students face the threat of having their state-funded scholarships taken away from them, and there doesn’t seem to be a long-term solution in sight.
This financial crisis stems from decades of fiscal mismanagement, which has lead to $15 billion in unpaid bills and a preposterous quarter-trillion dollars in unfunded pension liabilities to loyal, public employees.
Cuts in state funding have forced schools to raise tuition and fees, causing a host of negative effects. In addition to stealing the hope that low income students have for procuring a higher education, increases in cost lead to declining graduation rates, more student loan debt, inability to make large purchases (e.g., a home or a car) and emotional stress.
Uncertainty about financial aid, as well as increased competition from surrounding states, have led to Illinois gaining the title of the second largest exporter of freshmen to other state’s public colleges. Thousands of students are following the money and searching for the biggest bang for their buck. According to the Illinois Board of Higher Education Outmigration Context Report, the net loss of students in 2014 — the most recent year for which data is available — was 16,623, which is greater than the undergraduate student body of nine of Illinois’ public universities.
Inevitably, this has all contributed to lower enrollment at most state schools. Illinois State University had fewer new freshmen and transfer students this fall, ending three continuous years of record breaking growth. Our school is down over 300 freshmen and over 200 transfer students in comparison to last year. ISU’s overall enrollment remained relatively constant, with only a 1.2 percent decline versus fall 2016.
Many other state schools were not nearly as lucky. Chicago State University’s enrollment dropped 25 percent in 2016, and 11.4 percent this year. Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and Western Illinois University were neck and neck at with a fall of 8.9 percent.
Public universities in neighboring states are jumping at the opportunity to attract Illinois talent to their institutions. Schools like University of Iowa provide shiny scholarships, but still make more money off out-of-state students than residents. Some colleges, such as the University of Missouri, show students how they can become eligible for in-state tuition after just one year.
Another downfall of losing students is that gifted students may never return to positively impact our state’s workforce. It’s very common for students to stay put after graduation. Losing talented students means losing talented workers, innovators and entrepreneurs who can benefit our economy.
Illinois made this financial nightmare a reality by ignoring the long-term consequences of poor short-term decision making. Our state’s unstable budget has led to the increase of tuition, and ultimately the loss of students to other states’ public schools. Luckily, ISU has weathered the storm and has not been nearly as affected as other Illinois colleges and universities.
Although our enrollment rates have been resilient in the face of danger, will we be able to uphold our financial and educational value if this trend of mismanagement of funds continues? The bottom line is that if Illinois does not get the budget on a sustainable path, vital organizations and institutions will crash and burn. While it isn’t too late to get back on track, immediate action must be taken to stop the downfall of our state before the damage becomes irreversible.