Jim Dey: Next on legislators' not-to-do list: Restructuring higher ed

Jim Dey: Next on legislators' not-to-do list: Restructuring higher ed

Since the goofs who run the state of Illinois usually do the wrong thing for the wrong reasons, it's hard to imagine they'll take any serious action this year on problems that taxpayers recognize, let alone one that runs beneath the surface.

After all, this is an election year. It's important not to rock the boat, even if it's taking on dangerous amounts of water.

So the idea that Gov. Bruce Rauner will reach accommodations with legislators on such issues like underfunded pensions, budget deficits and unpaid bills almost defies imagination.

That's why it's surprising that state Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, decided — no matter how welcome it will be received — to start a conversation on the future of higher education in Illinois, specifically the structure under which the state's nine four-year schools (12 campuses) and almost 50 community colleges operate.

He wants the Legislature to act promptly on what he perceives as an excess capacity problem — too many institutions offering too many duplicative programs to too few students.

Whether his fellow legislators take him up on the offer or not, Rose said he's confident they'll face the issue eventually because declining enrollments will eventually force schools to close — perhaps in five years.

Rose is getting help on the issue that he welcomes.

Rauner, during a recent visit to The News-Gazette, confirmed that he's considering appointing a bipartisan commission to study and make recommendations on how best to restructure the oversight of the state's higher-education system.

Simultaneously, the Chicago-based Civic Federation last week released a report in which it, among other things, lent support to the idea of a Rauner commission.

The Civic Federation also recommended that the current oversight of the state's four-year institutions be scrapped.

It recommended "that the nine universities be governed by a single board of trustees to facilitate the establishment of statewide goals and rationalization of state resources." Each university now has its own separate board.

The 12 campuses (the University of Illinois has three; Southern Illinois, two) range in size from extremely large to extremely small.

Two UI campuses (Urbana-Champaign and Chicago) accounted for roughly 54,000 undergraduates in fall 2017. Illinois State had another 18,300 undergrads and Northern Illinois, 13,454.

The three smallest were Chicago State, with 2,095 students; UI-Springfield, with 2,932; and Governor's State, with 3,326.

The Civic Federation complained that the Legislature "has been starving its universities of operating funds for years, with no apparent plan for the most effective allocation of severely limited state resources."

One of the drivers behind the concerns expressed by Rauner, Rose and the Civic Federation is the substantial out-migration of state high school graduates who are going out to college in states like Missouri, Indiana, Iowa and Wisconsin.

"The share of Illinois high school graduates enrolling in four-year colleges who went to out-of-state institutions rose to 46 percent in the fall of 2016 from 29 percent in 2002," according to the Civic Federation.

Around that same general time period (2008 to 2017), undergraduate enrollment in Illinois fell by 9.9 percent.

With declining enrollments and limited resources, the Civic Federation suggested a Rauner commission "consider the elimination of duplicative programs, reallocation of resources among programs and campuses and the closure and consolidation of campuses."

Its proposal for a single board, the Civic Federation said, is motivated by a desire to eliminate the "environment in which universities compete against each other for resources" and make it easier for the state's Board of Higher Education to "establish statewide goals and allocate resources strategically."

Rose is less interested in a single board of trustees and more interested in putting the Board of Higher Education, the Illinois Community College Board and the Illinois Student Assistance Commission under one entity.

He suggests that would permit more strategic planning and less redundant growth than now occurs.

One simple solution, he proposed, is to establish a "uniform admissions process online" that would be accepted by the nine state universities and would allow a student denied admission to one school to be admitted to another.

He said that would "ensure" that any student with minimum credentials would be admitted to a public university.

Rose's bill also would require the Board of Higher Education "to determine which academic programs should be prioritized at campuses of public universities" and "create and designate Higher Education Strategic Centers of Excellence." Community colleges, too, would be integrated into this plan.

Restructuring higher education in Illinois is not exactly a hot topic. But like so many others in Illinois, the current situation can't be ignored without serious negative consequences.

Not, of course, that they're likely to get much attention from the powers that be.

From their point of view, there are so many important issues and so little time to ignore them all.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 217-351-5369.

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catsrule wrote on February 13, 2018 at 10:02 am

Bruce Rauner is the only governor in Illinois history to deliberately not fund higher education. After more than 2 years, the IL General Assembly passed a higher ed budget over his veto. Bruce Rauner's attempt to create a crisis in support of an anti-labor agenda (namely "Right to Work" *for less*, elimination of prevailing wage laws and collective bargaining for education and public sector workers), has resulted in the following during his tenure: Roughly 72,000 fewer students enrolled in Illinois public colleges and universities (students and their parents are justifiably wary of uncertainty), 7 state universities with credit downgrades, five to junk status, $1 billion less in economic activity state-wide, 7,500 fewer higher ed jobs (Charleston was devastated and may not recover for years if ever), the U of I, ISU, SIU dropped in the U.S. News & World Report Rankings and tuition and fee increases averaging 7 percent were passed on to students. Bruce Rauner is by any objective measure the worst governor in Illinois history as it pertains to support for higher ed. Then again, by his own admission, he isn't in charge.