By Jamey Dunn
A new study found that Illinois’ higher education system, once one of the best in the country, has lost substantial ground in recent years
A Story of Decline: Performance and Policy in Illinois Higher Education found that between 1998 and 2008, there was a 10 percent drop in the number of high school graduates who enroll in college within four years of graduation and an 8.5 percent decline in the number of students who enroll in college directly after graduating.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Research on Higher Education also found many factors that could lead to a college degree becoming less affordable in the state. “From 1999 to 2009, median family income in Illinois fell by 7 [percent] in constant dollars while tuition increased by 100 [percent] at public four-year universities and by 38 [percent] at public two-year colleges. At the same time, state support for need-based grants dropped from $1,036 to $745 per undergraduate full-time student, a decline of 28 [percent.]”
The study found racial disparities among Illinois college students. “Blacks and Hispanics and individuals with low incomes are far less likely than other Illinoisans to enroll in college or, if they do enroll, to earn degrees. For example, as of 2009, only 36 [percent] of black students and 44 [percent] of Hispanic students attending four-year colleges and universities were graduating within six years, compared with 66 [percent] of white students and 69 [percent] of Asian-American students,” said the report.
The report pointed to a lack of universal priorities in the state’s higher education planning, as well as the existence of few incentives for schools to increase performance in areas such as graduation rates and closing learning gaps. “The Illinois legislature, for its part, is seen as partisan and lacking consistent and substantive leadership for higher education. State leaders we interviewed, including state legislators, questioned the legislature’s ability to establish shared goals and priorities for higher education,” said the study. The study said that recent governors have not made higher education a priority, and political corruption has only made matters worse.
George Reid, executive director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education, said that the study is outdated. “My take on that study is that it might have been accurate two or three years ago, but it definitely does not characterize higher education in Illinois today.”
Reid said the Illinois Public Agenda for College and Career Success, a master plan released by the board in 2008, is an integral part of the turnaround. Reid said many of the problems pointed out in the University of Pennsylvania study are included in the agenda, along with the state’s plan to address them. “The legislature and [Gov. Pat Quinn] and all of us are now singing from the same hymn book,” he said.
Reid said the board is working to address the performance gaps found in Illinois’ higher education system. “We know we have two states of Illinois.” He said one state is filled with residents who have financial security. However, Reid said, “we have this underside of Illinois where people are not doing well — where they don’t have a job, and their economic outlook is not good. … What we found out in the public agenda is that if you have a college degree, that is the gateway of rising out of that underside.”
The authors of the report agree that education is the key to closing that so-called prosperity gap. However, they say the agenda needs more focus. “There are so many recommendations without a clear sense of the priorities,” said Laura Perna, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and an author of the report. She said that especially during a budget crisis, state leaders must agree on a set of realistic priorities if the higher education system is to be led in a coherent direction.
The report cites funding cuts as part of the problem, and said the often staggering totals of overdue payments to universities have eroded trust between academic leadership and lawmakers. However, the report also said that the decline began before Illinois’ current budget crisis. “The state is also facing substantial fiscal shortfalls, but it is important to note that the decline in higher education performance began before the recent budget challenges; it is likely that increased funding alone will not improve performance.”
Illinois is looking to create financial incentives for schools to improve performance. In August, Quinn signed House Bill 1503, which is the first step to linking funding and school performance. The bill calls for a commission to create metrics to measure the performance of higher education institutions. Chicago Democratic Sen. Edward Maloney said that work on the metrics has been productive and he expects them to be released sometime next month. He said that one important detail has been to ensure that schools are not measured in an across-the-board manner, but that the system takes into account each institution's unique circumstances and mission. He said one way this might be accomplished is giving schools more credit for positive outcomes for students who have been determined as “at risk.”
Maloney, chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, said that the amount of funding linked to performance would likely be small at first. He said that one of the biggest challenges to the plan is the state budget. Maloney said the idea is to reward schools that are doing well, not punish schools that are under-achieving. But he said if higher education funding is cut or even holds steady, the end result would be punitive — taking away money from current funding levels — instead of a positive incentive — getting bonus funds for good performance. “The higher ed community has celebrated flat funding as a victory. That is unfortunate, but that’s where we’re at.”
Perna and her research partner, Joni Finney, who is also a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, looked at Illinois as part of a series of five state studies and plan to release data on other states in the near future. The project focuses on the possible causes of higher education outcomes in different states. Perna said that other states are struggling with issues similar to those facing Illinois. However, she said that the findings in Illinois are particularly disheartening because the state was performing very well in recent years. According to the study, Illinois was a leader on enrollment rates and college affordability during the mid-90s. “Illinois was once a state that people looked to as the model for higher education performance, as well as public policy and government, and it's not really any longer,” Perna said. She said that Illinois' more positive performance history is an indicator that higher education in the state could bounce back. “The potential is there, but there’s been a serious erosion. … Some profound things have to change.”