Illinois has made another dubious top 10 list, ranking fourth nationally in a study that examined the steep decline in state support for America's top public research universities.
A 20 percent drop in state funding for the nation's 101 major public research universities over the last decade threatens their ability to educate the next generation of scientists and engineers and attract the best students and faculty, Tuesday's report by the National Science Board said. The study also questioned the long-term financial health of the institutions and the affordability of American public higher education.
The organization provides independent advice to the federal government and oversees the National Science Foundation.
Here's a link to the National Science Board report: http://www.nsf.gov/nsb/sei/companion2/
The 101 public research universities — which perform the majority of academic science and engineering research funded by the federal government, and educate a disproportionate share of scientists in training — are often described as "the envy of the world," but they have been weakened by years of eroding state support, the report said.
State per-student funding for the universities dropped by an average of 20 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars from 2002 to 2010, the study said.
Illinois's three public research universities combined — the University of Illinois campuses in Chicago and Urbana-Champaign, and Southern Illinois University-Carbondale — experienced the fourth-largest drop, at 37 percent, from $12,020 per student to $7,566.
The state followed Colorado (48 percent), Rhode Island (47 percent) and South Carolina (38 percent), and tied with Georgia. Only seven states increased support.
"This is one more authoritative voice sounding the alarm that the U of I and other public research universities have sounded throughout the last decade — these institutions are immensely valuable state assets fulfilling multiple missions and are put at risk by states unwilling or unable to provide a predictable, sustainable level of funding support," said UI spokesman Tom Hardy.
Most noticeable is the impact on tuition, which at Urbana has risen 119 percent since 2002-2003, he said. Tuition and fees combined are up 123 percent in that period, he said.
"That is unfortunately the most efficient, effective way to make up the gap in state support in order to maintain quality, as resources are paramount for quality in terms of teaching, research everything," he said.
But there's also "great concern" about tuition levels, Hardy said. UI trustees two years ago voted to tie tuition increases to an inflation index.
"We believe we're getting close to the price point where we know we're losing highly qualified potential applicants and potential enrollees," he said.
State tax support now provides about 15 percent of the UI's $4.4 billion operating budget — not counting $1 billion in "payments on behalf" for employee pensions and health care, Hardy said. That's down from 31 percent in fiscal 2002.
This year the UI's state funding dropped by $42.5 million, or about 6 percent, to $667 million.
"All of this affects our ability to recruit and retain the best faculty and staff," Hardy said.
Meanwhile, income from tuition at the UI will top $1 billion for the first time this year.
That's partly because enrollment has risen substantially in that time. At the three Illinois schools combined, overall enrollment is up by 6 percent over the last decade, the National Science Board study said. The UI has also increased its share of out-of-state students, who pay 2.5 times the in-state tuition rates, Hardy said.
To cushion rising tuition costs, the university is trying to provide more financial aid through private fundraising, a major goal for Urbana campus Chancellor Phyllis Wise.
Public universities as a whole are having to be more adept at building their endowments, Hardy said.
"It used to be the state was more or less the endowment for public institutions," he said.
Many public universities are losing their best faculty to private schools, the report said. While public research universities still managed to increase instructional spending 10 percent between 1999 and 2009, to about $10,000 per student, private universities increased such spending 25 percent over that period, and now spend more than twice as much per student on teaching as their public counterparts.
Meanwhile, the salary gap between public and private research universities is widening, the report said.
UI figures show an erosion of tenured faculty over the last 20 years at the Urbana campus — 13 percent since 2001 — because of budget cuts and a spike in retirements.
Like other public universities, the UI has to become more efficient, Hardy said. A review of administrative costs led to $50 million to $60 million in annual savings, money that will be redirected to other priorities.
"We need to keep doing that, and we will," Hardy said.
As state funding's share of public higher education budgets continues to decline, some experts believe public institutions could begin essentially privatizing themselves, giving up what little state funding remains — and the public obligations it carries — in exchange for autonomy.
Hardy doubts that would happen at Illinois, given myriad statutes governing public higher education and the state's "huge investment" in the UI and other state universities over the past 150 years.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.