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Local Column

Mendoza: Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner's policies hurt public universities

Susana Mendoza, Illinois comptroller
Susana Mendoza, Illinois comptroller

At high school graduation parties this month, after congratulating the bright grad and their proud parents, make a note to ask where they plan on attending college.

Thanks to the state budget crisis, the higher education destination of choice for many Illinois teens is “out of state.” Every year, about 32,000 Illinois high school grads go out of state to college, while only about 16,000 out-of-staters come here. That’s a net loss of 16,000 college-bound students to out-of-state schools. They’re fleeing because they know the future of our state’s higher education institutions is unpredictable.

Under Gov. Bruce Rauner, funding for public four-year universities has been cut by $1.4 billion, or 60 percent. Funding for community colleges has dropped by two-thirds, or nearly half a billion dollars.

By failing to fund Monetary Award Program grants, Rauner has put more than 100,000 Illinois students at risk of being unable to complete their studies.

Funding cuts have caused state universities to eliminate 1,400 jobs since Rauner took office.

There are no short-term solutions: State universities can’t fund capital improvements or borrow their way to temporary relief because downgrades from credit agencies have lowered their bond rating to junk status.

The effect of Rauner’s policies extends beyond campuses. Our universities employ more than 175,000 Illinoisans and generate more than $28 billion in annual economic activity. Studies show every $1 invested in higher education generates $4 in economic activity. Every lost job represents a family, a homeowner and a neighbor. Every lost dollar hurts businesses and affects funding for local schools, infrastructure and first responders. Corporate leaders should be up in arms about losing our best and brightest. 

Northern Illinois University’s budget has been cut by 59 percent since 2015. NIU President Doug Baker has said he planned to sell assets, cut programs and reduce staffing costs to close a $35 million gap, but the restructuring plan wasn’t enough to save the university from earning junk bond status June 9.

So what should DeKalb, neighboring communities and students do amid Rauner’s wreckage?

First, see how your local legislators have responded to the state’s higher education crisis. Remaining silent while our historic public institutions are decimated is unacceptable. Although it was recently unthinkable, some won’t survive to benefit future graduates without immediate relief.

We need a budget now. Legislators can stop the destruction taking place in their backyards and start rebuilding our state colleges and universities. The most important step is putting our communities ahead of Rauner’s political agenda.

But don’t just take it from me. Before they leave town, ask a college-bound senior what he or she thinks about the damage being done to our public universities. Their high school civics lessons will still be fresh in their minds – they can probably even explain how the state constitution says it’s the governor’s responsibility to introduce a balanced budget for the General Assembly to act upon – and they can truly put this unfolding tragedy in perspective for you.

• Susana Mendoza, a Democrat from Chicago, is the comptroller of the state of Illinois.

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