National Editorial & Columnists

Illinois higher education disarray hurts state

Stabilizing this sector would aid economic development

Jim Nowlan

Whenever kicked out of Illinois government and politics (frequently), I have taken refuge as a visiting professor at several Illinois colleges and universities, primarily the University of Illinois. And I admit a soft spot for the sector.

Yet, higher education across the country is out of favor at present, especially so in Illinois. Since 1978 (when I was Gov. Thompson’s assistant for education), state appropriations for higher education shrank from 10 percent of the total state budget to just 3 percent in 2014.

Excluding state funding for university pension programs, Illinois has lost, in real terms, one-third of its state funding for higher education in the period.

Consider also that many citizens are also upset with colleges for, on some campuses, blocking conservative speakers, and for creating “safe zones” for students who feel harmed by controversial statements.

In this regard, a recent national survey found that 58 percent of Republican respondents felt that “colleges have a negative impact on the country.” In contrast, 72 percent of Democrats said the sector had a positive effect.

All this is in sharp contrast to “the Golden Era” of higher education in Illinois, from post-World War II to the 1990s. In 2000, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education ranked Illinois as having the best overall state system of higher education in the nation.

Not today, I’m sure. When state dollars to the sector slowed, public institutions started raising tuition and fees, to offset what they considered a state funding shortfall.

But tuitions spiked, and now more Illinois students than ever are enrolling elsewhere, especially in neighboring states. In 2002, 29 percent of Illinois students enrolling in 4-year universities did so out of state; in 2016 it was half (49 percent)!

As a result, at least in part, several Illinois state universities have seen their enrollments drop precipitously in recent years. For example, Eastern Illinois University lost 36 percent of its enrollment between 2010 (11,630) and 2016 (7,415).

In addition, high school graduation numbers in Illinois are expected to decline, from 149,000 in 2013 to 125,000 in 2032.

Illinois public institutions have marvelous strengths. For example, the U of I at Urbana-Champaign computer and electrical engineering program ranks fifth best in the nation (a few years ago, it was third), according to annual rankings by U.S. News & World Report.

According to the U of I president, the program awards more undergraduate degrees than MIT, Stanford, Berkeley and Cal Tech combined. No wonder tech companies are moving to Chicagoland.

Black Hawk College-East Campus, in my neck of the woods, has a distinguished set of agricultural programs, this year ranked by a prominent farm publication as second best in the nation among hundreds of community colleges.

Western Illinois University has a very highly regarded law enforcement program. There are many more such examples elsewhere in Illinois.

So, I am flummoxed that we aren’t trying harder to stabilize and strengthen higher education, an obvious, key driver of economic development. Our state already ranks high among the 50 states in the percentage of us who have college degrees, and even higher in those with graduate degrees. We should build on that.

I met recently in Springfield with several active and retired heads of higher education state agencies and associations. What should be done, I asked?

They said we need more state-level analysis of how to fit capacity (probably too much at the moment) with the needs of both students and the state.

These experts added that “checks and balances,” such as program approval and elimination, are needed at the state level from a respected oversight board.

The Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE) used to perform the above role, and it also generally kept higher ed free from the unsystematic, legislative pork-barrel projects that benefit this or that university.

But the IBHE lost its credibility and thus influence in the past couple of decades, and lawmakers and governors lack the time and expertise to oversee an Illinois public university and college sector that enrolls almost half a million students.

State Sens. Pat Maguire, D-Joliet, and Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, have become specialists in higher education. They, other lawmakers and experts are holding meetings off the radar about how to bring order out of grave disarray in Illinois higher education.

For the sake of the economic future of Illinois, let us hope these elected officials can stabilize and strengthen the sector, and soon.

Note to readers: Jim Nowlan of Toulon can be reached at