Jim Applegate

Jim Applegate

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Every Tuesday in The News-Gazette, we’ll turn over our Commentary page to community members and other experts with local ties. If you have interest in weighing in on a topic making news, contact Editor Jeff D'Alessio at 217-393-8249 or jdalessio@news-gazette.com.

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Having served as executive director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education during the two years Illinois lacked a state budget, I now look on that debacle as a training ground for colleges and their leaders for the skills needed to survive the immediate effects of this pandemic.

However, this time it is different. As horrible as the impact of the budget crisis was, there was a sense it would end at some point and allow a return to something like “normal.” That will not, and probably should not, be the outcome we seek as we move through and beyond this pandemic.

Higher education, paradoxically, is both the closest thing we have to a silver bullet in the information economy to raise individuals and families out of poverty and a complicit partner in driving income inequality. A recent study of graduates of hundreds of comprehensive universities revealed that almost half (and for some colleges 70 percent) who entered in the bottom two quintiles of income, rose to the top two within eight to 10 years of graduation.

However, a Georgetown University study just out provides a convincing argument that for the last several decades, at least, higher education as a system has also driven inequity.

The pandemic has laid bare the inequities in our society generally and in higher education specifically. As we plan for a new normal, we must listen to the voices of our better angels and reinvent with equity, affordability and sustainability as our guiding principles. As one student said, “We all look ‘equal’ walking between classes, but we really aren’t.”

That image once masked the challenges many college students face struggling with homelessness, food insecurity, poverty on campus and at home, limited access to technology, poor high school preparation and lack of health care. Higher education was beginning to wake up to these issues before the pandemic. The pandemic made them clear.

Inequity plagues not just students but entire sectors of higher education. The very sectors that teach and elevate the majority of the most vulnerable are the most vulnerable themselves during a financial crisis.

Without something like a trillion dollars in aid to states and localities from Congress, the next several years will be grim indeed. Illinois was only able to pass a flat budget this year by building in massive borrowing from the pandemic program created by the Federal Reserve with hope federal aid will negate the need to borrow. Many states are in the same boat.

The institutions that suffered most during the Illinois budget debacle may not survive this longer-term pandemic challenge.

So federal aid to states with assurances that substantial dollars will be strategically targeted to higher education to promote equitable college success is the most immediate priority.

Second, higher education must move beyond its “emergency” switch to remote learning to a sustained effort to offer more flexible models for delivering credentials that range from remote to traditional, with many hybrid models in between. This can also offer lower-cost options to those who need higher education most.

Third, now that the myriad ways inequity undermines poorer students is clear, we need to create on campus and remotely accessible programs of student supports that address the needs of the whole student: typically in partnership with agencies and nonprofits whose expertise in areas like homelessness, food insecurity, mental well-being, transportation and poverty exceed most colleges’.

It takes a village. No campus can take do this all on their own.

The bottom line is that if try to return to the old normal, we will at best recreate our role in income inequality and at worst fail in a way that hurts those who can least afford it.

Jim Applegate, a two-degree UI graduate and visiting professor at Illinois State, served as executive director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education from 2014-17.