By Jamey Dunn
Yet another study warning about state cuts to public universities came out this week, and Illinois was in the top 10 list of the worst offenders.
The National Science Board, which oversees the National Science Foundation and advises the federal government, published a study this week that focused on funding at the country’s 101 major public research universities.
Between 2002 and 2010, per-pupil spending declined by an average of 20 percent nationwide. Illinois’ spending declined by 37 percent, which was the fourth largest decline in per- student spending. Colorado topped the list with a 48 percent decline in per-student spending. Only seven states did not decrease per pupil spending over the same time period.
In Illinois, state funding reductions and tuition increases have been the norm for higher education in recent years. Public research universities — including the state’s three schools, University of Illinois campuses in Urbana and Chicago and Southern Illinois University Carbondale — took an $80 million hit in the current fiscal year budget. U of I, the state’s largest university system, saw the biggest cut. The university system, which also included the University of Illinois at Springfield, sustained a $42.5 million reduction in state funding. Spending on day-to-day operations increased by 3.7 percent under the U of I’s current budget, but the state’s share of the spending went down.
Illinois has also been slow to make payments to schools. According the SIU President Glenn Poshard, The state still owes SIU, which also has a campus in Edwardsville, $54 million from the fiscal year that ended in June. Poshard said that the state is already behind on its payment for the current fiscal year as well.
Students who started at SIUC and the U of I this fall saw a 4.8 percent tuition increase. State law requires that tuition be fixed over four years for incoming freshman. U of I officials say the increase is comparable to 1.9 percent annual increase over four years, and that they plan to keep tuition increases tied to inflation to avoid big jumps. In 2011, before that policy announcement, tuition jumped by 6.9 percent.
The Science Board study found the trend in tuition increases repeated across the country. Over the last decade, students have been asked to pay more while universities in turn spent less per student. “In recent years, public research universities have raised tuition and fees at rates that have exceeded inflation and rates of increase at private universities, in part due to declining state appropriations.” Between in 1999 and 2009, tuition revenue from full-time students at public research schools increased by 50 percent.
John Koropchak, vice chancellor for research at SIUC, is not surprised by the results of the study. “Accounting for inflation, state support in the state of Illinois has dropped by about 27 percent in the last decade," he said. “Pretty much nationwide, state universities have seen a dramatic drop in support for public higher education.” He said other recent reports on funding for research schools have had similar results.
The Science Board report warns that if public schools lose their competiveness when it comes to recruiting, faculty and staff and fighting it out for research grants and contracts, it could have a negative impact on their surrounding communities. “Reductions in revenue of public research universities and gaps in salary between public and private research universities have the potential to lead to an outflow of talent at public research universities and reduced research capacity. These could result in greater concentration of talent and [research and development] in fewer geographical locations, and at fewer universities, with smaller and less diverse student bodies. This could have a substantial impact on economic and workforce development at the local, state, and national levels.”
The prediction is especially alarming for a school like SIUC, which a major employer and economic driver in the region. “For the most part for the southern half of the state, there’s only one research university, and that’s us. That’s SIU,” Koropchak said.
He added, “There is some indication that there is a tendency right now for the private universities to be, in a sense, cherry picking the best faculty away from the public universities.” Koropchak said when institutions lose faculty it hurts also student recruitment because many graduate students are recruited by specific faculty members.
Koropchak said that research universities are also concerned about cuts on the federal level. He said that about $80 million of SIUC’s external budget comes on the form of government grants and contracts with industry, and some of that money is in danger. “These federal programs are projected to have something like 10 percent reductions in their budgets.”
He said SIUC, along with most other research universities, is pushing for more collaboration with private industry in the form of research contracts. While such funding has increased in recent years, he said that the public perception that the private sector is filling the gap left by government cuts might be overblown. “It is still a pretty small fraction of most research universities’ portfolios.”
While many university officials in Illinois seem resigned to the fact that state higher education spending will probably not see a significant increase in the short term, Koropchak said there are things that can be done at the state level to increase the competitiveness of Illinois’ research universities. He suggests a statewide council with representatives from the research arms of the three schools. Such a group could help schools collaborate on research projects bringing together multiple niche experts to tackle a larger project, such as water conservation. He said that an open channel to joint research would allow the three schools to bring perspectives from different geographic locations of the state to address a statewide issue, or allot for fresh eyes on a regional problem.
Koropchak believes the idea would help all three schools become more competitive when seeking federal grants and contracts. He points to similar entities in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. “I think the more collaboration we have between the different research universities, the better we are going to take advantage of the assets that we have.”