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'Nationally, Illinois Is An Outlier': Illinois Looks To Make Higher-Ed Funding More Equitable

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Illinois K-12 education Evidence-Based Funding takes 27 key elements like the number of nurses or low-income students a school has and calculates an adequacy target for each district. Higher-ed institutions in the state have no defined funding formula.

A recently passed bill looks to completely change how higher education is funded, just like what lawmakers did with K-12 schools four years ago. Kyle Westbrook, executive director of the Partnership for College Completion, says this new equity-focused mindset is long overdue.

“We have institutions in our state who are serving significantly high percentages of low-income students, students of color that, frankly, are being inadequately funded to serve the interests of those students.”

That could start to change with the passage of Senate Bill 815. It creates a commission to research equity-based funding strategies and return to the legislature with a report.

The State Board of Higher Education also just released a strategic plan calling for a new funding formula to close graduation and retention gaps among low-income and students of color.

“I think it's important to first realize that, nationally, Illinois is an outlier in this regard,” said Westbrook, who gave testimony during a committee hearing for the plan. “The vast majority of other states have a true formula for how they appropriate their state funds every year. And Illinois is one of only a few that does not have a defined formula.”

Westbrook says the idea is to look at criteria like the number of low-income students and how much a university relies on state appropriations to calculate an “adequacy target.”

For example, some schools like Chicago State serve the highest percentages of Pell-eligible and students of color but depend more heavily on state aid than the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

When those schools need to provide more services for students but don’t have the funding, tuition goes up.

The newly-passed proposal also asks institutions to establish equity plans. Westbrook says many Illinois schools have significant graduation and retention gaps along racial and socioeconomic lines. These plans will look at what each school can do to help close them.

He says universities can make changes by removing standardized testing requirements from scholarships and stopping financial holds on student accounts. Every year, tens of thousands of Illinois students miss out on MAP Grant financial aid because the first-come-first-serve money runs out. Westbrook also says the state needs to commit to consistent funding for MAP Grants, so that doesn’t happen.