Trustees give UI's budget compact their blessing

Trustees give UI's budget compact their blessing

CHICAGO — A bipartisan bill that would guarantee five years of stable funding for the University of Illinois if it holds down tuition and meets other benchmarks could be a model for resolving the state's budget impasse, its legislative backers say.

The idea of linking taxpayer dollars to accountability and performance has broad appeal in a cash-strapped state, sponsors said after the proposal was endorsed Thursday by UI trustees.

The "Investment, Performance, and Accountability Commitment" also has key selling points for legislators whose constituents have long complained that tuition is too high or the UI doesn't accept enough in-state students, said co-sponsors Rep. Mike Zalewski, D-Riverside, and Sen. Bill Cunningham, D-Chicago.

But they admitted it faces a tough road in a state paralyzed by budget gridlock for the past two years.

"We've got our work cut out for us," Cunningham told UI trustees.

Under the bill, introduced Thursday, the state would provide at least $662 million in funding each year, plus annual inflationary increases, if the UI meets targets on tuition, financial aid and enrollment.

The state would also provide some regulatory relief that the UI says would improve efficiency. It would exempt the UI from state procurement codes, eliminating red tape that often pushes up costs and delays faculty research, threatening to drive away top researchers, said UI President Tim Killeen.

For its part, the UI promises to:

— Hold tuition and fee increases for in-state undergraduates to the rate of inflation.

— Admit at least 27,300 Illinois residents at its three campuses — 11,800 in Chicago, 1,500 in Springfield and 14,000 in Urbana (all similar to this year's numbers). Illinois residents would also have to make up at least half of all on-campus enrollment growth above 2015-16 levels.

— Maintain a systemwide 87 percent freshman retention rate (the UI's current rate is 89 percent), and a six-year graduation rate of at least 72 percent for first-time freshmen (current rate is 76 percent).

— Use at least 12.5 percent of annual state funding — or $83 million during the first year — to support need-based financial aid for in-state undergraduates. The amount would increase by the rate of inflation each year. It does not include any merit-based financial aid.

— Commit an additional $15 million in financial aid to attract Illinois minority students and those from Illinois counties that are underrepresented at the three campuses.

— Provide an annual report on its website with key data on those benchmarks and enrollment statistics.

If the UI failed to meet those targets, legislators could adjust its funding for the following year. If the state didn't provide the agreed-upon funding, the UI would not be bound by those standards for the next year.

Three Champaign-Urbana legislators — Democrats Sen. Scott Bennett and Rep. Carol Ammons, and Mahomet Republican Sen. Chapin Rose — attended a press conference to support the measure Thursday, along with several Chicago-area lawmakers.

Sponsors worked for months with the UI to draft the bill, insisting on the commitments to in-state enrollment and financial aid targets, Bennett said. Diversity was another key concern, legislators said.

Bennett said his constituents want assurances that the money wouldn't just go to new administrative positions but would benefit students.

"That is a huge issue," he said.

Taxpayers also want to know that their children have a shot at getting into the state's flagship university, he said.

Cunningham said the three complaints he hears most often about the UI are about tuition, students with strong academic credentials not being admitted and minority participation rates.

"The University of Illinois listened" and came up with a proposal to address those concerns, Rose said.

The regulatory relief is an important component that all public universities can benefit from because it lets universities "do their job, whether it's Eastern, Urbana or Governor's State," Rose added.

"When SIU medical school goes out and buys instruments and there's only one vendor because no one wants to put up with the state of Illinois' procurement rules, that costs everybody — it costs taxpayers, it costs the students, it costs the families," he said.

Killeen said one or two other state universities are considering similar agreements, calling the UI proposal a "pilot project." Bennett expects measures from other schools to be introduced in coming months.

"It can be a template for all of higher education," said Republican Rep. Bob Pritchard, whose district includes Northern Illinois University. "This is a model that moves the needle that breaks the gridlock."

Killeen said he has talked with House Speaker Michael Madigan and state Sen. President John Cullerton about the proposal, and they have an "understanding and appreciation" for the concept, though they haven't signed on to this particular bill. The General Assembly's veto session begins next week.

Cunningham said the state has suffered from a "drought of bipartisanship. Hopefully this initiative helps end that," he said.

Ammons said the ultimate goal is to provide stable funding for the university and higher education, which is a crucial state responsibility.

UI officials and legislators said the measure could help stop a "brain drain" of students headed to universities in neighboring states. Illinois ranks second nationwide in the number of students it exports to other states, at 16,000, and statistics show two-thirds will never return, said UI Trustee Tim Koritz.

"We are losing our best and brightest at a record rate," he said. "If we do not reduce this trend, it will be a death spiral for all of us."