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Local Column

Miller: What's ailing and can fix higher education in Illinois

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 worldwide 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 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 about 50%.

As a result, Northern, Western, Southern (Carbondale) and Eastern Illinois universities saw enrollment dive 30% to 40% between fiscal 2008 and fiscal 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 fiscal 2020.

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 10 years. Pritzker put in $375 million for fiscal 2020 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.

• Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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