Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Tuesday May 19th, 2015, 2:07pm

Experts: Higher Education Reinvestments Needed In Illinois & Nationwide

Illinois, and nearly every other U.S. state, is spending less today on higher education than when the Great Recession started, according to new research from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).

CBPP's report, issued last week, details how state-level cuts to higher education funding over recent years have been a key cause of "steep tuition increases that threaten to put college out of reach for more students." The center's research comes at a time when Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner has proposed deep cuts to higher education as part of his 2016 budget plan. 

"College-educated workers are essential to our nation's economic success," CBPP policy analyst and report co-author Michael Mitchell said in a statement. "States must reinvest in their colleges and universities now to build the workforce they need to compete in decades to come."

Illinois is currently spending 4 percent less on higher education per student than it did in the 2007-2008 school year, according to CBPP's report. That works out to be a decline of $255 per student, which is actually a relatively small cut compared to other states.

Arizona, for example, is spending 47 percent, or $3,053, less on higher education per student than it did in the 2007-2008 school year, the biggest change among the U.S. states.

Overall, states are spending an average of 20 percent, or $1,805, less on higher education per student than they did at the onset of the the Great Recession.

"To ensure that public colleges and universities are a place where middle-class and low-income students can receive a high-quality and affordable education, states need to reject costly tax cuts," Mitchell said. "Some may need to consider options for new revenues."

Though Illinois experienced a relatively small change in higher education spending since 2008, the state has seen tuition at public universities and colleges increase by an average of 22.9 percent, or $2,377 per student, over the same time period. Average tuition at Illinois public colleges and universities did tick down between fiscal years 2014 and 2015, but only by a mere .1 percent, or $19.

As average tuition costs inched down slightly, Illinois cut higher education funding over the past year, as did 12 other states.

Higher education spending in Illinois declined .1 percent between fiscal years 2014 and 2015, representing a $6 cut per student. Of the 13 states that reduced higher education spending over the past year, Illinois' cut was the smallest.

As part of his budget plan for the 2016 fiscal year, which starts July 1, Rauner is proposing to slash public university funding by 31 percent, or $387 million. Higher education is just one of many budgetary items Rauner wants to cut to help close a more than $6 billion deficit in the upcoming fiscal year. Next year's budget gap is largely due to the January expiration of the 2011 state income tax hike.

According to Voices for Illinois Children, Rauner's budget proposal could amount to a $2,200 cut per full-time, public university student. That's based on a situation in which state public universities offset the proposed budget cuts only with tuition and fee hikes. In such a situation, full-time, public university students could see an 18 percent increase in tuition and fees on average when compared to the 2013-2014 school year. Voices for Illinois Children excluded community college students in its calculation, as community colleges would receive flat funding under Rauner's budget proposal.

Larry Joseph, director of research at Illinois Voices for Children, noted that Illinois already has the highest university tuition fee for in-state students in the Midwest.

Young Invincibles, a Millennial research and advocacy group, broke down Rauner's higher education budget proposal differently. When factoring in the most recent full-time student enrollment numbers for both public universities and community colleges, Rauner's budget represents a $1,316 reduction in non-retirement higher education spending per student.

"Illinois public universities already have the fifth highest tuition of any state in the country," Young Invincibles' Midwest Director Eve Rips said in a statement to Progress Illinois. "Governor Rauner's budget would cut state support by more than $1,300 per student, forcing universities to increase tuition, and putting a greater share of the burden on Illinois' students and families."

The state, meanwhile, has already slashed higher education funding spent directly on students by $500 million over the past five years, according to Young Invincibles.

College Affordability For Undocumented Illinois Students

On the topic of college affordability, Illinois lawmakers are currently considering legislation that would let undocumented students who meet certain requirements compete for state-funded financial aid and scholarship opportunities at public, four-year universities.

Currently, undocumented immigrants in Illinois are ineligible for public university scholarships, grants, waivers and other forms of financial assistance. They also cannot obtain federal student aid.

The measure would cover undocumented students who are enrolled at public, four-year universities in the state and graduated from an Illinois high school. The students must also meet in-state tuition residency requirements. 

Approximately 1,500 undocumented Illinois students enrolled in state universities could be impacted by the legislation, HB 3528.

State Reps. Elizabeth Hernandez (D-Cicero) and Edward Acevedo (D-Chicago) are among the bill's chief co-sponsors. The legislation has cleared committee and is up against a May 22 deadline in the House for final action. The end of the regular scheduled legislative session ends May 31.

The bill does not increase state aid for scholarships and grants, meaning it would not be a fiscal burden on the state. It would, however, allow qualified undocumented students to compete with Illinois residents for available college assistance resources, including need-based Monetary Award Program (MAP) grants.

In 2014, the average MAP grant in the state was $2,725, according to figures provided by the Latino Policy Forum, a proponent of HB 3528. When it comes to financial aid, Illinois awarded more than $600 million in such assitance to students in 2014, according to an HB 3528 fact sheet issued by the University of Illinois, which supports the bill.

"Undocumented high school and university students, commonly known as DREAMers, have led the advocacy and organizing efforts to open the doors for subsequent generations to follow them through college," the Latino Policy Forum said in an email last week to its supporters about HB 3528. "This bill recognizes their struggle and provides an equitable option for those looking to achieve their personal version of the American Dream."

If HB 3528 is approved by both chambers and signed by the governor, Illinois would become the sixth U.S. state to extend financial aid opportunities to undocumented students. 

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