PI Original Adam Doster Wednesday December 8th, 2010, 2:00pm

State Fails In Its Support For Higher Ed

Unless Illinois invests more money in higher education, the state won't be ready "to face its future," a new report says.

The national economy is changing rapidly. Blue- and white-collar middle-class jobs that don't require college degrees are disappearing rapidly even as high- and low-skill service jobs have proliferated. By 2020, over 60 percent of jobs will require some form of post-secondary education, particularly those that pay well enough to support a family. Currently, only 41 percent of working-age adults in Illinois have an associate’s degree or higher. And a state report published this month about higher education funding in the Land of Lincoln contends that we're not prepared to ramp that figure up.

Illinois' Higher Education Finance Study Commission -- a panel of roughly two dozen business, education, and political leaders convened by the General Assembly this spring -- offered some stern words for lawmakers in a newly-minted report (PDF), the result of a six-month analysis into how Illinois funds its public universities and colleges. "Illinois," the committee bluntly states, "is not ready to face its future."

What's the problem? It's one that won't surprise any family whose children have attended college recently. State support for colleges and universities has fallen off a cliff this past decade. Including grants, appropriations, and financial aid payments, funding from the General Assembly has dropped $440 million in inflation-adjusted dollars, or 17.6 percent, over the past 15 years. Although colleges were shorted well before Illinois' budget deficit exploded, the latest shenanigans in Springfield haven't helped; as of October 31, the commission found that public universities were still owed $20.2 million from FY 2010 and another $575.6 million for the fiscal year that began in June. (So far, they've only received a paltry $325,100 for FY 2011.) Community colleges are in the same boat.

Declining state funds have shifted the cost burden onto students. Tuition now covers 53 percent of all four-year university expenses, up from just 27 percent in FY 1996. This comes during a time period that the New York Times' David Leonhardt described as "the worst extended run for median income on record." To make matters worse, the state's financial aid system is out of date. The buying power of a Monetary Award Program (MAP) grant, Illinois' primary need-based grant, has eroded. A decade ago, a MAP grant covered 100 percent of average tuition and fees at public schools. Now, it covers just half the cost. And that's assuming you get one. Thousands upon thousands of applicants were flat-out denied this year because demand eclipsed supply so dramatically.

All three legs of the post-secondary funding stool, in other words, are teetering.

With the exception of several poor-performing four-year colleges, which cycle (mostly poor) students through and face little accountability for the instruction they offer, the money that does eventually land in school coffers is spent rather efficiently, the report found. Illinois produces more credentials at a lower cost than the national average across three major sectors (public research, public master’s, and community colleges). Without more resources, though, Illinois won't be able to scale up its offerings to meet the demands of the 21st century economy. "A state that endangers the quality, the reach, and the effectiveness of its colleges and universities is a state that endangers the future of its citizens," the commission warns.

To catch up, the body advises that the General Assembly implement a new financing design for higher education within the next year. That would include boosting funding for its (well-designed) financial aid system and for institution budgets more generally. Those investments, the commission argues, will reap dividends over time. "Higher education yields social benefits," they write, "such as decreased rates of crime and an enhanced cultural environment; personal benefits, such as improved health and income; and public service benefits, such as increased participation in political and community life."

More controversially, the report advocates for the development of a performance-based funding system. Appropriations in Illinois are based on enrollment figures. Some states have started to pay colleges based on achievement goals set in advance. In Ohio, for example, colleges get cash for the number of courses students complete successfully. Additional funds are also passed along for the success of at-risk students. And at community colleges, which have open enrollment, success can be measured in other ways: the number of students who obtain workforce certificates or the number of adult students who gain specific remedial skills. If cash depends on how well students perform, the thinking goes, administrators will focus more energy on student learning.

State Rep. Fred Crespo (D-Hoffman Estates), who served on the commission, told the Daily Herald the next step is to hold hearings about the recommendations in the House Higher Education Committee, which will have a new chair next session. Even with the state deep in the hole, it's another education reform debate worth tracking.

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