Tom Kacich: Rose places emphasis on higher education

Tom Kacich: Rose places emphasis on higher education

There was a bit of role reversal last week at a meeting of the Illinois Senate Higher Education Committee. Instead of college and university officials being told by senators what they should be doing or what they're doing wrong, there were appeals for ideas, information, suggestions from two senators who are on a separate higher education working group.

"Our purpose truly at this point is to consider ways to help Illinois and higher education thrive again," said Sen. Pat McGuire, D-Crest Hill, who chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee. "We're asking now what are you doing to recruit, retain and graduate Illinois students? And it's been a fascinating conversation."

Separately, Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, practically begged for feedback on his legislation, introduced last October, that includes a wide-ranging reorganization of public higher education in the state. But the idea behind SB 2234, he said, was "to start a conversation" about the higher ed system.

"We need your help. It's been 3 1/2 months. Please start giving us your ideas," he said.

The early reaction to Rose's legislation was skeptical, with many higher education leaders viewing it as an attempt to eliminate programs and downsize particular institutions. That's not his goal, Rose insists.

"Yes, you might shed some students in Program X, but you're going to gain far more students in Program Y," he said. "That's how you've got to view this, not as a closure as such, but trying to grow the overall pie by being strategic in our investment."

Rose says he wants to "reinvigorate" Illinois higher education, return it to the national pre-eminence it had a generation or two ago and make it more efficient.

For example, he asks why Illinois has a separate board of higher education, community college board and student assistance commission, which he said spend a combined $66 million on operations annually.

"We're the only state that has three different systems doing essentially one job," Rose said.

Or why are dorms being built at one university when they're being closed at another? Why isn't there a common application form for all universities? Why does every public university have an education program?

Or this question he broached about an initiative at Champaign's Parkland College: "All last year, you heard about community colleges that wanted to become four years colleges (with a nursing program). Where is the plan? There is no doubt in my mind that we need more nursing school programs in this state. But the question is where do you put them and how do you take advantage of the infrastructure you already have so you can get that operation with the least cost? At the end of the day, it's the students and their families paying all this money."

And the taxpayers.

Rose said he wants the IBHE, which he said was "defanged" of some of its oversight and coordination responsibilities in the 1990s, to get that authority again.

"There needs to be more planning and coordination. We have to do more for the taxpayers," he said.

Illinois, he said, should stop being the No. 2 state for outmigration of high school seniors and should start filling up the dorms and classroom spaces at so many of its universities.

"Part of this goal is to fill the seats, but another part is to not lose the 27 to 30 ACT score kids to Ohio State and Michigan and Alabama and Missouri and the others that are cherry-picking them," he said. "There's no reason that we shouldn't fight for every last Illinois kid graduating from high school to stay in Illinois. We can't keep letting these kids leave."

Much of the positive reaction Rose has received to his initiative has been private, he said.

But he singled out Southern Illinois University President Randy Dunn for "sticking his neck out to point out what frankly is the obvious, which is we can't keep doing what we're doing."

Dunn wrote of Rose's legislation in October that "we can't be deaf to reasonable and thoughtful proposals which have a goal of making the state's higher education system more efficient, saving taxpayer dollars in the process and holding a lid on the ever-increasing price of tuition at our public universities."

He said he doesn't agree with everything in Rose's bill — and Rose himself said it's just a starting point — but Dunn said "we may have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build a new model of a state system that strengthens our institutions, improves education for students and is respectful of taxpayers' desire to constrain replication and redundancy in the services it provides its citizens. We can't sit this one out."

Unfortunately, the meetings of the higher education working group are held behind closed doors and away from reporters.

But both McGuire and Rose say it's possible their discussions will result in legislation this year.

That would be alright, Rose said, given the paralysis the Legislature has experienced for much of the last three years.

"If this is the only healthy, thoughtful thing to come out of the General Assembly this year it will be worth doing," he said.

Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette reporter and columnist. His column appears on Sundays and Wednesdays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at kacich@news-gazette.com.