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: Illinois' student exodus should drive a higher ed overhaul

Chicago Tribune

Wednesday, September 13, 2017  |  Editorial  |  Editorial Board

Education Funding (36a) , Education--Higher (37)

Now that Illinois finally has a budget, we imagine that college presidents across the state will be trooping to Springfield with their hands out for money. They may remind lawmakers and the governor that eight years ago, Illinois pols approved a plan to sprinkle millions of dollars on state public university campuses for new construction projects. Among them: a $72 million performing arts center for Western Illinois University. A $57 million advanced tech building for University of Illinois at Chicago. A $54 million visual arts center for Illinois State. A $40 million satellite campus for Chicago State. A $71 million education building for Northeastern Illinois.

 

All of those projects eventually stalled as the state’s capital funds ran out and its budget woes deepened. Illinois spent more than $14 million toward these five major projects that never emerged from the planning phase, according to a review of the state’s capital budget by the Tribune’s Peter Matuszak.

 

We aren’t arguing to revive these projects, in part because Illinois is hemorrhaging college students. Instead, we hope Gov. Bruce Rauner and the legislature will focus on the next urgent matter on Illinois’ education agenda: overhauling the state’s public university system so that it better educates students while eliminating expensive redundancies.

 

First principle: Reorganize all 12 of Illinois’ state universities into one centrally overseen entity, not a dozen fiefdoms under nine separate boards, as they are now. Because all these universities should share a single goal — to offer Illinois’ young people an array of campuses with common basics but specialized strengths.

 

Why is this important? Because students are voting with their feet. Six of Illinois 12 campuses have lost enrollment over the past decade.

 

The two-year state budget fiasco persuaded many to flee. Just in the last two years, enrollment in the state’s public universities and community colleges dropped by 72,000 students,

according to a report from the Illinois Economic Policy Institute and the Project for Middle Class Renewal at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

 

Within days we expect to see an updated statewide breakdown by school. Among the losers: Southern Illinois University at Carbondale has announced that its 2017 enrollment will be about 14,500, down almost 9 percent from last year. The incoming freshman class plunged a staggering 19 percent. Eastern Illinois University says it will suffer an enrollment hit of about 5 percent in 2017, reducing its student population to around 7,000.

 

So, with enrollment tanking, how can Illinois make its higher ed system more attractive to students?

 

Try this, Gov. Rauner. Summon the presidents of the state schools to Springfield. Ask them to make pitches about what each of their universities does best. What programs, classes, professors make their universities distinctive and attractive? And what subject areas are specialties of other state schools? Ask leaders to rethink the degrees they offer and the value that students gain for the tuition dollar at so many schools doing such similar jobs. Ask these administrators what academic expertise each of them could build in a few fields, if they were freed from competing for students in every field.

 

Do these leaders need a model? Tell them to check out what’s happening in Wisconsin’s single, centrally overseen system. New York and California also have rebalanced their offerings statewide.

 

But be wary, Governor. You’ll have trouble convincing some special interests, including legislators from university towns, that a campus isn’t first and foremost a cash cow for the local economy. Illinois can’t continue to prop up so many schools that have duplicate administrators, duplicate overhead and duplicate curriculums. Too many campuses are competing for scarce resources to do what other universities are doing better.

 

Whenever you encounter pushback, keep repeating: “Nine university boards to oversee 12 schools.”

 

The idea isn’t to weaken already-faltering universities, but to strengthen and rationalize the statewide system. By making schools accountable to centralized oversight. By streamlining procurement and consolidating other business operations. By sending a larger chunk of cash into classrooms and labs, and a smaller chunk into overhead and administration.

 

Fix this system now, lawmakers, and give individual schools the missions that will let them shine. Or watch more students flee.