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Higher education budget is welcomed, but building money is needed

Belleville News Democrat

Wednesday, June 13, 2018  |  Commentary  |   By Tom Cross And Al Bowman/Illinois Board of Higher Education

Education--Higher (37)
Illinois’ governor and state lawmakers are taking a victory lap following passage of a state budget for fiscal year 2019. Throughout the recent legislative session, the Illinois Board of Higher Education and college and university leaders called for a fair and predictable budget, so we joined the applause at the session’s checkered flag. We also believe that celebratory lap should be a short one.

The increase in operating funds of 2 percent for Illinois’ public community colleges and universities is reasonable in the context of the state’s overall budgetary demands. The inclusion of a list of capital funding for priority construction projects and deferred maintenance is welcomed.

Maintaining the Monetary Award Program funding at $401.3 million and giving priority access to grants for returning students with financial need to reach graduation at Illinois’ public and private colleges is reassuring and essential to make their college dreams come true. The establishment of the AIM HIGH grant program providing a total of $50 million, including $25 million in state funds matched by $25 million in tuition assistance scholarships from Illinois’ 12 public universities, sends a message that Illinois high school graduates with high academic honors needing additional financial aid are desired on our public universities’ campuses.

The budget brings much-needed stability and predictability to most colleges and universities while dimming the memory of political gridlock and the destructive budget impasses since 2016. In sum, the budget reflects several steps forward but there are miles to go to fully restore the jewels in the crown of the Illinois higher education system.

The Higher Education Working Group, a bipartisan group of legislative leaders from both the House and Senate, should join with college and university leaders to focus on further improving affordability, access, innovation and state support — keys to halting Illinois’ brain drain. Our board will be happy to facilitate joint discussions beginning immediately, leading up to the start of a new legislative session in 2019. We also will be strongly pushing for the release of capital funding for public colleges’ construction projects, many of which have been languishing for a half-decade, as well as emergency and safety-related capital renewal funding.

We are grateful that Gov. Rauner and the General Assembly followed and in some cases exceeded IBHE budget recommendations, and we remain eager to work with legislators and college and university leaders to build on our momentum.

Tom Cross is the chairman of the Illinois Board of Higher Education. Al Bowman is the board's executive director.