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Solving this will require more than platitudes

Monday, Jun 17, 2019

* My weekly syndicated newspaper column

Back when this state was fairly well-run — meaning, before Illinois voters elected three anti-Springfield “populist” governors in a row — the general rule of thumb was that for every two dollars appropriated to K-12 education, higher education received one dollar.

The split wasn’t based on any sort of scientific study, as far as I know. It was just the tradition, but the tradition seemed to work pretty well. Even in lean years, everybody got something, and our state’s higher education institutions appeared to thrive.

But that all started to change with Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who believed, with some evidence, that universities were more interested in building fiefdoms than educating kids. The spigot began to dry up.

Add in two world-wide recessions which hit Illinois particularly hard (post-9/11 attack and the 2008 financial meltdown), then toss in a steep mandated increase in annual state pension fund payments, and higher education funding, like pretty much everything else, dried up.

State higher education appropriations peaked in Fiscal Year 2002 at $2.4 billion. Adjusted for inflation, that would be almost $3.5 billion today. In the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, higher education (including MAP grants) received $1.79 billion, barely more than half of where we were at our peak.

Universities have made up for much, but not all, of the deficit by raising their tuition rates. And that, in turn, has priced several of the “directional” schools out of reach because other states like Missouri and Iowa have been aggressively recruiting our high school graduates with attractive financial deals.

All of this, combined with the state government’s chronic fiscal uncertainty, has driven Illinois college students to other states in droves. In 2002, about 23% of high school students chose out-of-state colleges. By 2017, that was up to almost 50%.

As a result, Northern, Western, Southern (Carbondale) and Eastern Illinois universities saw enrollment dive 30-40% between Fiscal Years 2008 and 2018. The damaging exodus accelerated during Gov. Bruce Rauner’s term in office, when Illinois went two years without a budget.

The good news is that higher education funding will rise $150 million to $1.94 billion next fiscal year. The feat was hailed as “arguably the best [legislative] session for higher education in a generation,” by the Illinois Board of Higher Education’s interim executive director. But, overall, the appropriation is still almost $1.6 billion shy of where the state was at its peak.

When you break down education funding as a whole, K-12 received 76% of new state money in the operating budget, while higher education received 24%.

So, I asked Gov. J.B. Pritzker the other day if he was aware of the old two-thirds/one-third split and whether it might be time to return to that formula.

Pritzker didn’t directly respond. He said he wanted to “restore our higher education institutions” because they’re “the best economic investments you can make” for the state and doing so would slow the overall exodus of Illinoisans from the state. He’s said that countless times, however.

One reason the old two-thirds/one-third split wasn’t all that great for K-12 education was because the state’s antiquated school funding formula wasn’t distributing money to where it was most needed. The state addressed that problem a couple of years ago with a new “evidence-based” funding model, but that means state funding for the new formula must now rise by at least $350 million a year for ten years. Pritzker put in $375 million for next fiscal year and added other funding upgrades totaling $491 million. The governor said he wanted to continue making those sorts of investments in K-12 in the future.

Asked whether higher education needed its own “evidence-based” funding model, Pritzker said he’d heard the concept was kicking around, but couldn’t commit to something that wasn’t a reality as of yet.

Money isn’t everything. Some of our universities are much better led than others. And higher education is getting a big and sorely needed boost from the state’s new infrastructure program, which will allow the institutions to fix up their dilapidated campuses and finally move some of them into the 21st century.

Has Illinois started to turn the corner here? I would say it has taken a step in that direction. The first rule of getting out of a hole is to stop digging the hole. But solving this problem by making the state more competitive with those who love poaching our students is still a very long way off. We need more than platitudes.

- Posted by Rich Miller        

30 Comments
  1. - driveby - Monday, Jun 17, 19 @ 9:48 am:

    No mention of admin costs and pensions, which are demolishing actual spending on education. Just blame Rauner. What a joke.


  2. - Rich Miller - Monday, Jun 17, 19 @ 9:52 am:

    ===No mention of admin costs and pensions===

    You apparently cannot read.


  3. - Rich Miller - Monday, Jun 17, 19 @ 9:54 am:

    ===Just blame Rauner===

    Again, you cannot read too well. Look at the first sentence, for crying out loud. You Raunerite dead-enders are really quite something.


  4. - JT - Monday, Jun 17, 19 @ 10:09 am:

    Illinois passed legislation establishing performance-based funding for higher education in Illinois and prior to the impasse it was used to allocate a small percentage of the state funds going to the public higher ed institutions. Research doesn’t show performance-based funding is very effective at improving performance but a couple well funded think tanks push it. In fact, performance-based funding has a cyclical history in higher ed as it was tried in previous decades and dropped when shown not to be effective.


  5. - Merica - Monday, Jun 17, 19 @ 10:11 am:

    Richard Vedder’s July 6, 2018 article in Forbes, titled, “Why Enrollment is Shrinking at Many American Colleges” debunks much of this.

    The fact is that Illinois college enrollment declines at downstate schools is not unique. Small public colleges (“colleges of last resort”), in Missouri, Michigan, and Indiana, are also seeing large enrollment declines.

    Less selective/competitive schools are a bad deal. Graduates get paid less, so much so, that it negates the Cost of paying for college (why get a college degree to serve Starbucks).

    Pump however much money you want into these colleges, you can’t force students to pick them.


  6. - Low Enrollment - Monday, Jun 17, 19 @ 10:14 am:

    Based on population trends they should just close Chicago State and merge it with Governor’s State.


  7. - JT - Monday, Jun 17, 19 @ 10:15 am:

    Merica - the enrollment declines are not only at “less selective/competitive” schools in Illinois. And some of the schools that didn’t show a decline did so by recruiting more international students, not Illinois students.


  8. - Honeybear - Monday, Jun 17, 19 @ 10:23 am:

    Here’s another issue that my family discovered the hard way when applying for college. It appears that the University of Illinois made a switch to a vast majority of foreign students in their STEM majors. U of I can charge the foreign students full tuition. But as a result NO stem major at my daughters High School got into U of I. Not a single one. Not even the valedictorian.


  9. - 17% Solution - Monday, Jun 17, 19 @ 10:31 am:

    “Less selective/competitive schools are a bad deal. Graduates get paid less, so much so, that it negates the Cost of paying for college (why get a college degree to serve Starbucks).”

    That is simply not true, with a few exemptions (law school) the name of the college isn’t a deciding factor with employers. And not every degree leads to a career as a barista. Can we can the hyperbole?


  10. - JT - Monday, Jun 17, 19 @ 10:37 am:

    Honeybear - being Valedictorian means more in some schools than it does in others. My cousin was valedictorian of her high school class of 35 students and she scored a 25 on her ACT. At my high school the valedictorian scored a 34. So we need more context about the students you say did not get accepted. I scored a 30 and was offered $10,000 in scholarship money to study material science at UIUC but went elsewhere.


  11. - SN - Monday, Jun 17, 19 @ 11:06 am:

    “Less selective/competitive schools are a bad deal. Graduates get paid less, so much so, that it negates the Cost of paying for college (why get a college degree to serve Starbucks).”

    This is laughably false. As a group, even people with humanities degree from less competitive universities earn more income,and 50% lower unemployment rates than people with AA/AS degrees as well as people who start but don’t finish university. The compensation premium for having a BA/BS is eroding but it is far from gone.


  12. - Nonbeliever - Monday, Jun 17, 19 @ 11:29 am:

    Excellent analysis that hardly anybody, if anybody, has taken the time to articulate.


  13. - jdcolombo - Monday, Jun 17, 19 @ 11:39 am:

    Honeybear @10:23

    Engineering is the most academically competitive program at UIUC. The median ACT scores required for admission are between 32-35, depending on the program (a 35 for computer engineering; 32 for general engineering) with a median minimum high-school GPA of 3.75 (higher with some programs). And there is a long list of high-school pre-requisites in science that not all students take (or, sadly, not all high schools even offer). These statistics are the reason UIUC’s engineering program is ranked as one of the best in the world. In this environment, being a validictorian means essentially nothing; the question is what did this person score on the ACT, what was their high-school GPA, and what courses did they take while in high school.

    Getting into UIUC’s engineering program is about as difficult as MIT, Cal-Tech, or Carnegie-Mellon. And we should keep it that way. Parents and potential students need to do research on potential colleges and have more realistic views about their options. Engineering at UIUC will not be a realistic option for 99% of the high school grads out there.


  14. - Pot calling kettle - Monday, Jun 17, 19 @ 11:41 am:

    When Iowa State and other out of state universities are less expensive than NIU, WIU, EIU, SIUC, etc, is it a surprise that students leave Illinois? Our universities are as good as those in neighboring states, but the cost more.

    We should treat our Universities as an investment in the state’s future, and work to bring the net migration of freshmen (now around -20,000) to zero. In this context, the universities with excess capacity are an asset. We need to invest in the infrastructure and lower the cost as other states have done.

    ==Based on population trends they should just close Chicago State and merge it with Governor’s State.==

    What demographic trend would that be? While the number of high school graduates is declining, a greater percentage are seeking high education. “…the overall college enrollment rate (or graduating Illinois HS seniors) increased by a robust +3.7 percentage points from 2016 to 2017.” (https://www.ibhe.org/DataPoints/IBHE-Data-Points-2019-1-Outmigration-Context-2019-final.htm)

    Chicago State has the potential to lift a sizable low income Chicago-based population out of poverty. Unfortunately, those students cannot afford to go there. (Nor can they afford to go elsewhere.) Merging with Governor’s State will not solve that issue.

    Our HS grads need and seek higher ed. Because we have underfunded higher ed in Illinois for almost two decades, those students go elsewhere or do without. We can and must do better.


  15. - Responsa - Monday, Jun 17, 19 @ 11:43 am:

    Competent and realistic counselling of individual high school kids about their interests and vocational options is key to decision making about post H.S. education. This does not get enough attention. Mechanics for everything from airplanes to diesel trucks
    to sports cars, and trained craftsman and woodsmiths who can build and repair things (for example) are in high demand, have lucrative independent careers and require smarts, discipline and common sense.
    The idea of having a four year college degree regardless of curriculum, regardless of school and at any cost/debt is adversely affecting too many young lives.


  16. - Robert the Bruce - Monday, Jun 17, 19 @ 11:55 am:

    The issue is not whether college graduation is worthwhile; it is. The problem is the low graduation rates at some universities.


  17. - Ginhouse Tommy - Monday, Jun 17, 19 @ 12:36 pm:

    The loss of the brightest young minds going out of state for college when some of them could be kept in state by recruiting is criminal. You’re not going to keep some from leaving but in state universities have made no attempt to keep up with out of state schools. Out of state universities like Missouri offer in state tuition to out of state students in they stay past their sophomore year so why don’t Illinois schools do the same. The universities in Illinois show no imagination or drive what so ever. The significant enrollment drops at EIU and SIUC are an out right disgrace. Alarm bells should have been going off long before now. As far as the U of I is concerned it has one of the most respected Engineering schools in the country. It’s accounting school is rated #1. It’s business and economics schools are also highly regarded. The library, when my father in law was going there is the early 1950’s was only second to the Library of Congress in size.


  18. - City Zen - Monday, Jun 17, 19 @ 12:59 pm:

    ==. As far as the U of I is concerned it has one of the most respected Engineering schools in the country. It’s accounting school is rated #1.==

    And when some smart kid from Naperville can’t get into either school, he isn’t going to one of the directionals instead.


  19. - MIffed - Monday, Jun 17, 19 @ 1:05 pm:

    4 years ago my son got a 32 ACT with a 34 in math and was offered $500 in scholarships at Illinois colleges.


  20. - Nonbeliever - Monday, Jun 17, 19 @ 1:19 pm:

    Many of the comments posted are quite good.

    I would like to add that in any analysis of funding for public universities there needs to be a solid look at the amount spent for administrative personnel of all types. Many articles in the CHE have commented on this matter and for good reason.

    Let’s go back 20 or 30 years, compare and see where personnel costs have been distributed in the universities.

    At least take an honest look and see what is revealed.


  21. - Not a Billionaire - Monday, Jun 17, 19 @ 1:25 pm:

    We are also seeing a declining number of births every year which is going to affect all levels of education.


  22. - Shrimp gumbo - Monday, Jun 17, 19 @ 1:41 pm:

    jdcolumbo @ 11:39:

    yep. in some old drawer, I have a “we regret to inform you…” letter from UIUC engineering school.


  23. - G'Kar - Monday, Jun 17, 19 @ 2:13 pm:

    The focus on four years is important. But, one must remember that more students attend community colleges in Illinois than all the public 4 years put together.


  24. - Ginhouse Tommy - Monday, Jun 17, 19 @ 2:25 pm:

    Miffed check out IC in Jacksonville. I know someone who’s kid got lower score than that and landed grants for good grades. It is a small but safe campus.


  25. - SSL - Monday, Jun 17, 19 @ 2:28 pm:

    UIUC Engineering is a phenomenal program and justifiably extremely competitive. Those kids are going to continue to change the world. Worth every penny of the tuition.


  26. - jdcolombo - Monday, Jun 17, 19 @ 2:55 pm:

    == And when some smart kid from Naperville can’t get in to either school, he isn’t going to one of the directionals instead. ==

    THIS. We need to strengthen programs at other schools to give kids who can’t get into UIUC a choice that is the equivalent of Purdue or Iowa or Minnesota or Wisconsin or Missouri. Look at California. Can’t get in to Berkeley? Well, there’s still UCLA, UCSD; UCSB, UC Davis - all of which have excellent engineering programs. We need that here.


  27. - Rich Miller - Monday, Jun 17, 19 @ 2:59 pm:

    jdcolombo is spot on.


  28. - Scamp640 - Monday, Jun 17, 19 @ 3:07 pm:

    @ Non-believer. I agree that a review of expenditures on administrative positions might have value. However, we should not condemn every additional administrative position. Times change, and with that change, comes the need to invest in new administrative employees with new skills to keep universities moving forward.

    For example, 30 years ago, we did not need the investments in IT support that we do now. Furthermore, as demand for distance education increases, we will need to continue to invest in IT support. Where I teach, these positions would be identified as administrators.

    Universities are increasingly asking faculty to seek external grants. However, state and federal granting agencies have placed increasingly stringent reporting and compliance regulations on grant recipients. Universities need to hire accountants and compliance officers to ensure grant dollars are being spent correctly and that research is being done ethically.

    If we care about student success and improved graduation rates, then we need competent advisors and other student support systems. For example, if we care about students with learning disabilities, investing in a student support system also makes sense.

    It is true that some administrative bloat exists. However, I believe that it is an exaggerated concern raised by critics of higher education seeking to justify cuts to public universities.

    Just my two cents.


  29. - Scamp640 - Monday, Jun 17, 19 @ 3:19 pm:

    @ jdcolombo: I could not agree more. However, because of the two year state budget impasse, several of the regional universities have reduced the number of degrees offered. Some elected officials have argued that each of the regional universities should cut their degree offerings and specialize in a narrow set of programs. That would be a terrible idea. If students change their minds about their majors, they should have some choices at their current university rather than having to transfer to another university. Otherwise, this is a recipe for student dropout.

    Your argument implies that it is okay to have several universities in the same state offering the same degree. I wholeheartedly agree. The regional universities are not going to be all things to all people. However, they should be funded well enough to offer a broad selection of degree programs. I mean, now many high school seniors know exactly what careers they want to pursue? Universities should offer choice to students. Otherwise, they will continue to seek other universities, many out of state, that do offer choice.


  30. - consmom - Monday, Jun 17, 19 @ 3:56 pm:

    You are right that solving the problem is a long way off, especially with the growing trend of sending kids out of state to schools that give lots of money. Why go to U of I when you can go to a top southern school, with a much nicer campus and better weather, for less than or equal to U of I (like Texas and UGA)? Or a lesser school but go for next to nothing (like Alabama). The out of state public schools and the private schools are throwing money at top IL students. It’s going to be hard to turn that around and keep those kids here. When I was in college, it was a thing to go to U of I. It’s not anymore. There’s a top SEC school that gives full tuition scholarships to instate kids with good grades and scores. Kids are clamoring to go there and devastated when they don’t get it. Not so with U of I. The kids in the most recent graduating classes from my kids’ high school ended up at Indiana, Wisconsin, Miami of Ohio, Texas, SEC schools, Iowa, Missouri, Colorado, Arizona, UCLA, USC, ND, BC, Marquette, Dayton, SLU, and many others, and probably at least 75% of those kids would have gotten into U of I. But they didn’t go. That’s not going to turn around any time soon.


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