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The Death Spiral of Illinois Higher Education — And How Not to Fix It

By Leo Welch, Legislative Officer, IL AAUP

Two Republican lawmakers in Illinois have introduced bills (HB 4103 and SB 2234) that they claim will save Illinois higher education from itself. They are Rep. Dan Brady, Bloomington, and Sen. Chapin Rose, Mahomet. Their bills will amend the Board of Higher Education Act. Although the stated intent of this Act will “protect quality; reduce duplication, redundancy, and inefficiency; protect ranked programs (and possibly eliminate others); and ensure that Illinois is prioritizing tax dollars to protect its higher education and eliminate its weaknesses,” the reality for most of the act is just the opposite. The other stated intent of the Act is to ensure that Illinois maintains a highly educated, skilled workforce.

Brady and Rose cite the decline in enrollment in most of the Illinois public universities and public community colleges and promote their proposed bills as a way to reverse the flow of Illinois students to other states. The lawmakers ignore the fact that Illinois ranks last in all states in per student expenditures.

The proposed legislation involves six amendments to the Board of Higher Education Act briefly summarized as follows:

  • Uniform Admissions-The Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE) shall establish a uniform online admission process which will be used for all public higher education institutions. It is not clear whether this admission process is for just the 12 public universities or also for the 48 public community colleges as well. If a public university rejects an application, the student will be offered admission to another public university. If all public universities redirect the applicant, the applicant will be referred to a community college.
  • Automatic Admission-Any high school student with a 3.0 cumulative grade point average (GPA) or better on a 4.0 scale shall guarantee admission to a public university. Students with less than a 3.0 GPA will be deferred to a community college.
  • Strategic Centers of Excellence-The IBHE shall conduct a survey of all public universities that evaluates the departmental quality of each academic department. The IBHE then will rank each academic program in relation to similar programs at other campuses. For example, the English Departments in the colleges and universities will be ranked from 1 thought 12. Any departments not ranked in the top eight could be eliminated by the IBHE if it found that the department is not viable.
  • Program Expansion and New Programs-The IBHE shall determine whether an expansion or development of a new program meets the needs of Illinois. Before a program is expanded or developed, the university would have to demonstrate that the program would cost less than an existing program elsewhere in the State of Illinois. This component of the Act will also require the university to demonstrate that work force demands exist for each program expansion or new program.
  • Student Financial Aid Study-The IBHE shall study the opportunity for merit-based financial aid to be completed by January 1, 2019. This merit-based financial support will come within the existing budget of the respective public institutions of higher education with no new money from the state. The General Assembly, however, could determine other ways to pay for a merit-based financial aid program. There is no mention of need-based student financial aid.
  • Multi-Year Budgeting Study-The IBHE shall study the concept of multi-year budgeting, as opposed to the current one-year budgeting. Multi-year budgeting would allow for more efficient planning and bring stability and security to the public institutions of higher education. The results of the study shall also be provided to the General Assembly no later than January 1, 2019.
  • Summary Critique-This proposed legislation appears to focus on Illinois public universities with little reference to Illinois public community colleges or to the Illinois Community College Board and their reports and recommendations to the General Assembly. When or how do the public community colleges get involved with their recommendations to the General Assembly?
  • Admissions-This proposed legislation would direct students with a “B” average to the universities, and the “leftovers” would be directed to community colleges. There are numerous reasons that a student may choose to start at a university or a community college and a “B” average is just one factor. This admission policy is too simplistic. The utilization of online and uniform admission procedure has some merit. It remains to be seen if the IBHE can develop a document that provides appropriate information for all of the various programs that exist in 12 universities and 48 community colleges.
  • Strategic Centers of Excellence-The “Center for Excellence” amendment appears to be a cover for elimination of programs at selected universities. Only 8 out of 12 programs will be considered “safe” and the remaining four may be terminated by the new power of the IBHE. There is no mention of community colleges in this proposal. I assume community colleges will be a later target. John Jackson, a visiting political science professor at the Paul Simon Institute at Southern Illinois University has stated, “That one’s a perfectly terrible idea.” He also states, “It’s not at all clear what are the reliable and valid ways to rank departments.”
  • Program Expansion and New Programs-Program expansion or new programs will remain under control of the IBHE and driven by work force demands. One outcome of these criteria will be the vocationalization of higher education at the expense of humanities programs. These criteria could limit innovation. For example, the development of computers resulted from research and development by mathematicians. There was no work force demand for computer expertise before computers existed. Finally, there is no mention of the role of faculty in these program decisions. Are the IBHE staff members experts in all academic disciplines? History shows that innovation comes from individuals not bureaucrats. How many Nobel Prizes have been awarded to bureaucrats?
  • Student Financial Aid Study-Student financial aid in the form of merit-based funding should be supported, but the question remains as to where the money will come from and whether Need-based funding would be reduced.
  • Multi-year Budgeting Study-Multi-year budgeting might gain wide support from academe if the General Assembly would institute multi-year funding. The failure of the General Assembly to generate their own budget over a two-year period should not raise hopes that multi-year funding for education will happen any time soon. The failure of the General Assembly to create their own budget was a disaster for Illinois higher education and was a major factor in students leaving Illinois.

This legislation will shift power from individual Illinois colleges and universities to the IBHE. Currently the IBHE has neither the time, the staff, nor the expertise to do the work that this legislation requires. The IBHE would have to create another layer of administrative, bureaucratic decision makers who take control critical decisions about Illinois Higher Education away from Illinois colleges and universities.

Funding for Illinois higher education has declined since FY 2002 and continues to decline. Possibly Senator Rose and Representative Brady should make higher education funding a priority rather than these proposals.