We are all aware that public higher education in Illinois has been struggling. The simple truth is that our poor political leadership in the state, from both sides of the aisle, has allowed our once great system of higher education to dwindle down to an also-ran. When action was needed, over two decades back, our leaders did nothing. As our mismanaged state began to deal with a century of debt ad corruption, higher education was cut, and then cut again and again. When the legislature and the governor decided to have their showdown, they placed higher education squarely in the middle and starved it for over two years. It is a wonder we still have public higher education in this state.
Two decisions along the way have devastated our system. The first was a decision to do nothing when our neighboring states (Missouri, Kentucky, Indiana) began to offer in-state tuition rates to Illinois students. Meanwhile Illinois continued to charge out-of-state rates to the students of our neighboring states. By the time Illinois acted to stop the stampede across the border, it was too late for our regional systems. Western, Eastern, and Southern were already in free fall.
The second decision that had unintended consequences was to remove the discretion of the state universities to accept only the community college credit (in transfer) that accorded with the academic standards of a given institution. In an effort to strengthen the community college system and make higher education affordable to more people, the state undercut the ability of the moderately selective institutions, such as Western, Eastern, and Southern, to admit only those students whose chances of success were good enough.
Meanwhile the state did nothing to improve the academic quality of the community colleges. Quite the contrary, they further depleted the role of full-time faculty and moved increasingly to hiring only part-time faculty. The result of this foolish combination of policies was to create a huge disparity between students who received their basic education at community colleges and then were unable to succeed academically or even to afford to move on to complete a four-year degree. They created massive debt among young people who had little prospect of attaining degrees.
The effect was to place four-year institutions in competition with community colleges, leading to enrollment declines at the former, and when added to the shrinking support from the state budget, the four-year institutions were forced to raise tuition in order to meet expenses. They quickly priced themselves out of their market with raise after raise in tuition and fees.
Why, then, would any sane student pay much more to go to SIU or EIU or WIU when an equally good education was available for less in a neighboring state? Why would any sane student pay three times as much for the basic requirements when they can be assured that their classes will all transfer from the community college and they spend a third of what SIU costs? The leaders of our regional systems were ineffective in convincing the legislature and the Governors that all this was a bad idea.
If it sounds like the perfect storm for SIUC, it was. The public universities that have been favored (UIUC and UIC) and the ones that received good leadership (SIUE and Illinois State, led by an outstanding president, Larry Dietz, who was actually fired from SIUC by some very stupid administrators) have been able to progress through this awful period. Every other institution has suffered.
This is the past. The question is what about the future?
There is no question that higher education in the US and in the world is in the midst of a massive transformation toward digital and distance and decentralized educational practices. There is no point protesting this trend or trying to stop it. The better path is to try to make sure that the transition brings us the new prospects that are genuinely good for students and for our state, and to try to preserve what is good in the way education has been done up to now. The US succeeded in building not only the best system of higher education in the world, we built the best system in the history of the world. We did this by recognizing the ways in which higher education is connected to business, agriculture, research, technology, and science. Those connections are as important now as they were when we built our system (in the 19th century).
Here is what we need to do.
- Consolidate our state system under a streamlined combination of the IBHE and the trustees of the various schools. The central educational authority needs to regularize standards of all sorts. It must work with the faculty and staff and student unions to bring parity and equity to the pay of all state employees. It needs to commit itself to creating an excellent full-time faculty, and to eliminate needless administrative bloat.
- Tuition cost and fees must be regularized across the entire system, such that community colleges and four-year colleges are equally accessible and are not placed in competition with one another. Some states have already moved to free tuition at their public universities. This is a good idea and it is good for the state. Whatever costs are associated with higher education in Illinois must be competitive with what it costs to go to college in our neighboring states.
- We must understand the idea of colleges and universities dedicated (above and beyond general education, which all should do) to developing a balanced set of “niche” programs, specialized enough to attract students from great distances. At SIUC, for example, the aviation and automotive engineering programs have big national reputations and draws. We must develop these programs, and something similar applies to graduate education.
- The Illinois public higher education system should share faculty and library and technology resources. Being appointed to the faculty should be a matter of being hired into the system, with variable assignments as they respond to student needs and the development of programs. The technology needed to deliver these programs to students where the students are –remotely.
- Illinois should do what can be done to learn from the successful models in other states, for example, the funding model in Georgia and the administrative model in Arizona. The expertise exists in Illinois to recreate our higher education system as a model, drawing on the successes of other states while innovating in keeping with our history and the unique capacities of our state.
We have received no effective leadership in higher education for decades. No one has any vision. No one has the political will to press for what is best for our state as a whole. That must change. I will do what I can to begin the changes.