Public higher ed troubles in Illinois

In the 1990s, Illinois was considered the gold standard for higher education. The state was a top performer in preparing students for college, enrolling them in universities, and keeping higher education affordable.

Illinois state capital

But the past decade has seen the state’s numbers take a sharp downward turn.

Illinois has recorded declines in the percentage of high school freshmen enrolling in college in four years. At the same time, college tuition at public two- and four-year institutions has increased substantially, while the state has failed to close achievement gaps based on race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and region.

“[Illinois] was such a strong performer and had this decline in different indicators over time, and it was troubling because many people have looked to Illinois as a leader in education,” says Laura Perna, professor in Penn’s Graduate School of Education and co-author of the report, “A Story of Decline: Performance and Policy in Illinois Higher Education.”

The Illinois paper is the first of a five-state study that examines higher education performance based on public policies.

Perna says in particular, Illinois was known for its need-based financial aid programs. Funding for that program has declined, however, and now the aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, which negatively affects those who have the fewest resources to access it.

Joni Finney, practice professor at Penn GSE and co-author of the report, notes that Illinois has a culture of strong Democratic and Republican governors who have appointed qualified professionals to the state’s various higher education boards. However, recent political corruption—also by both parties—has significantly weakened the ability of, and public trust in, those boards.

“[Illinois higher education] is very tied to the political context and the state really needs to attend to that political context if they really want to have a strong public higher education system,” says Finney.
The biggest reason for the downturn, Perna and Finney write, resulted from a 1995 change by the state legislature to dismantle the higher education “system of systems,” in which four governing boards represented 12 public universities. The reorganization replaced two of these systems with individual boards at seven public schools. Perna and Finney say this change was part of a nationwide movement to provide institutions with greater autonomy and less regulation. It has resulted, however, in an inability to share goals and priorities for higher education across Illinois, as well as a failure of judicious resource allocation.

“What you have then are individual institutions representing their own interests, and you have weakened your capacity as an agency [representing] the public interest,” says Finney. “We think that has a lot to do with this decline, particularly in affordability.”

Some schools, for example, seek to lock college students into the same tuition rate for their entire four years, a policy known as “Truth-in-Tuition.” Finney notes that some universities try to commit students to paying tuition that is higher than if rates were negotiated with political leaders. In addition, student aid has not kept up with recent tuition increases.

While the decline in the Illinois higher education system started before the recent recession, poor economic conditions have exacerbated the situation. “The economic challenges are not going to dramatically improve in the short-term,” Perna says. “The state is really challenged. It needs to figure out how to strategically use the fiscal resources that it has to try to achieve statewide goals and priorities for statewide education.”

Illinois also has a small, but growing Hispanic population, and shows significant disparities based on race and ethnicity in higher education outcomes. Additionally, people living in inner city Chicago have lower education outcomes than residents of other areas around the state.

Illinois does have a master plan for higher education, but the researchers note that it is short on specific goals and priorities. By outlining details, Finney says it would be easier for the state to properly allocate financial resources to fund initiatives and develop accountability measures to see if the initiatives are successful.

Other states are also challenged by efforts to bring consensus around statewide goals and priorities, they say.  In a recent report they released on higher education in Washington state, the second in the series, they write there has been an absence of leadership around issues of higher education. Policymakers in that state, Finney says, need to set clear goals and create an agenda to help citizens get college degrees so they can compete for jobs in Washington’s high-tech sector.

Perna and Finney will release their paper about higher education in Maryland at the end of January, followed by reports on Texas and Georgia. Finney says after the individual state papers, they hope to release a national report that outlines the themes in public higher education that are relevant to all states.

“The needs are really great,” says Perna. “We have to get better on these issues.”

Originally published on January 19, 2012