The Democratic and Republican primaries are over, thankfully, for many of us. But as the candidates transition into a new gear of spending and inundating us with numbers and claims about each other, we should be closely watching what’s happening to our state’s higher education system.
We cannot escape the reality facing Illinois: People are leaving, in droves. The more our political leaders fight, the more uncertainty and angst is created, and the easier it is for talented workers and their families to find somewhere else to call home.
The same holds true for our college and university students, and sadly, it has for some time. As our state grinds further into fiscal disaster, what’s left behind is a sad tale of exodus:
* In 2002, 29 percent of our college-going high school graduates enrolled out of state. By 2016, that number had grown to 46 percent — nearly half of eligible Illinois high school grads choosing to go anywhere but Illinois for college.
* In 2011, almost 880,000 students were enrolled in Illinois higher education. Just five years later, in 2016, that number had dropped by 100,000 students, or nearly a 12 percent drop.
Why are our college students fleeing? Higher education critics, from policymakers to parents, will claim the cost is too high and our campuses haven’t adapted quickly enough to our ever-evolving economy. One other important number is critically important here: Once adjusted for inflation, state funding for higher education operations (not including pensions) has dropped by $1 billion over the last 15 years.
We cannot pretend that a significant disinvestment in our crown jewel of higher education has not contributed to the challenges of cost, innovation and, most important, a growing perception that students can fare better elsewhere. These draconian cuts, to both student aid and institutions, have created a de facto policy that encouraged our best and brightest to leave. And with every student that leaves — almost 170,000 of them over that five-year period — it should be no surprise that our Illinois higher education rankings slipped from the top to the middle of the pack.
Understand the practical and wide-reaching effects of the exodus of college students. Many college-aged students who do come here from other states for their degrees are just visiting. We don’t have the warm weather of Florida, or the mountain hiking of Colorado, or the lure that other states can offer. So if we cannot keep our students here, and we lose others who graduate and head back home, where will we get our next generation of nurses and doctors, classroom teachers, and skilled engineers to plan our roads and infrastructure?
Our high-quality system of community colleges and public and private universities provide many wonderful choices for Illinois residents now, guides them through completing a degree at nationally high rate, and could do so much more if state government embraced the possibilities instead of thwarting them. The 2.5-year budget stalemate, where higher education was a primary victim, provided a window into the harm done to our students and our institutions.
Illinois colleges and universities employ 175,000 Illinoisans and produce an annual economic benefit of $50 billion, far more return on the state’s investment of less than $2 billion. Our campuses outperform virtually any other area of state investment because of outside private and federal investment, further driven by the high priority businesses place on developing and utilizing a skilled workforce when they invest and locate here.
We need a statewide comprehensive road map for improving higher education that recognizes we have helped create this problem, and can only turn it around through real investment and improved performance. I’m encouraged a bipartisan group of legislators has come together to work on this road map. My challenge to all of our leaders is to make higher education a priority on the campaign trail and at the Capitol, and not just a talking point in the latest ad buy.
Dave Tretter is president of the Federation of Independent Illinois Colleges and Universities.