Ralph Martire: Illinois lags in making higher education a priority

Ralph Martire: Illinois lags in making higher education a priority


Much consternation has recently been expressed over declining student enrollment in Illinois' public universities, and for good reason. According to the Illinois Board of Higher Education, total enrollment dropped by over 4,400 students from the 2016 to 2017 spring terms. This net loss is particularly troubling, since the state's flagship institution — the University of Illinois in Champaign — saw its student body grow over this sequence. That means other mainstays of higher learning in the state, like Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Western Illinois University in Macomb and Chicago State and Governors State Universities in the Chicago metro region, have been particularly hard hit, realizing year-to-year enrollment declines ranging from 9 to 11.5 percent.

Much of the blame for this slide in enrollment has been placed squarely on Illinois' failure to pass a general fund budget for either of the last two fiscal years. Which is accurate as far as it goes. After all, state funding of higher education in each of FY2016 and FY2017 was at least 64 percent, or $1.2 billion, lower than FY2015. But hey, this summer a bipartisan group of legislators worked together and did the right thing — they overrode Gov. Rauner's veto and passed a full budget into law for FY2018. Better yet, that final budget increased higher education funding by some $1.1 billion over FY2017, so problem solved right?

Well, no actually. Although FY2018 funding of higher education is a significant improvement over the past couple of years, it really represents more of a "stop-the-bleeding" moment, than a "woo-hoo, problem solved" moment. The reason for this is simple, FY2018 funding levels don't constitute a material departure from Illinois' long-term disinvestment in higher education. Here's why.

The IBHE is legally required to submit an annual budget recommendation for higher education to decision makers. For FY2018, that recommendation totaled $2.125 billion, or some $287 million more than the final budgeted amount. Which is nothing new. Over the last decade, actual state funding for higher education was fully $3.9 billion less, in the aggregate, than what IBHE recommended.

For a real eye-opener look back to FY2000, when the appropriation for higher education was $2.15 billion — or about $314 million more, in nominal, non-inflation adjusted dollars, than FY2018. Of course, inflation matters. Over time it drives up the cost of everything, from running a business to educating college kids. After adjusting for inflation, state funding for higher education in FY2018 is fully 51.6 percent less than in FY2000.

This consistent disinvestment has had consequences, none of them good. For instance, many Illinois public universities — like WIU for instance — have had to cut core academic offerings like philosophy, due to underfunding. Meanwhile, crucial student financial supports like the Monetary Assistance Program, which provides low-income kids financial aid in the form of grants they don't have to repay — aren't funded anywhere near what's necessary to meet demographically driven need. In response, potential college students have been voting with their feet: Over the last 10 years, enrollment declined at Illinois' public universities by more than 14,000 students.

Meanwhile, all the evidence indicates Illinois should reverse course, and invest in building a world-class higher education system. For instance, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for high school grads is more than twice as high as it is for college grads. Moreover, the wage gap between high school and college grads has doubled since 1979, growing from 23.5 to 47 percent. Want more — from 1979-2012, states with the greatest increases in productivity and highest per capita incomes also had the largest share of adults with a college degree. Not to mention that higher education plays a crucial role in facilitating upward economic mobility for individuals who come from low-income backgrounds.

Despite all that, Illinois continues to lag the nation in making higher education investment a priority — and kids heading off to college have noticed.

Ralph Martire is executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, a bipartisan fiscal policy think tank. His email is rmartire@ctbaonline.org.

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