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Illinois commission releases recommendations on how to make higher-ed funding more equitable

Northern Illinois University
Peter Medlin
Northern Illinois University

In 2017, Illinois changed how it funded K-12 education. Now, the Illinois Commission on Equitable Public University Funding has released its recommendations on how the state could shift how it funds public universities too. WNIJ's Peter Medlin spoke with commission member & Advance Illinois president Robin Steans about what that would mean for students.

Robin Steans (RS): “We have done some hard work looking at early childhood and at K-12. When you think about it, it just doesn't make sense to really be thoughtful about what should we be spending in early childhood to get things right for our kids, what should we be spending in K-12 to make sure that our kids are ready for college and career, and then to not look at that last piece [higher education]. It doesn't make sense. But I think there are some other, more pressing, reasons as well. We have had a huge fall in enrollment. One of the reasons is clearly affordability. We're down over 7% [public university enrollment, from 2012-2022], hundreds of thousands of students down. Funding was erratic and has gone down, and that has driven up tuition costs. And so, we've just got a perfect storm of challenges.”

Peter Medlin (PM): “And to highlight that affordability point, the report mentions some historical context about how there was an analysis that showed that from 2000 to 2020, state investment in colleges and universities in Illinois dropped by 46%. That's inflation-adjusted. How has that impacted Illinois students over the past couple decades?”

RS: “When state appropriations and support for universities goes down, tuition goes up. The second [thing] is, as those students get to those universities, you want to make sure they've got the support and the services those students need to be successful. If we learned anything from K-12, it's that not every student requires the same support. It may cost more [when it comes] to the first-generation goers, if they are English language learners, if they are parents, if they've got housing instability, all of that got factored in. We've come up with what we think is a credible way for the state to look at that and say, ‘Okay, here's what it’ll cost,’ and here's how you adjust that adequacy target based on your student population and the type of programs and the mission that your university has. So, we can calculate for every university, here's what you ought to be spending. Now that we know that, how much do you have available? How much can you reasonably expect in tuition, fees, etc? And then what's that gap? Then based on who's got the biggest gap, as we get new dollars in, how do we spend those dollars so that we are helping the institutions that are furthest from adequacy catch up the fastest?”

PM: “How different is that system and that formula, compared with the way that we do things now?”

RS: “It is very different than what we currently do. The current way that we fund higher education is, I don't really have a good word for it. It is idiosyncratic and it is very individualized. Every institution essentially comes to the General Assembly and says, ‘Here's what we need.’ There isn't a formula per se. So, what we typically do is just say ‘Well, how much more do we have? How much can we afford to send their way?’ Then we sort of give everybody, at this point now, an equal amount. You saw the governor's proposal this year is an across-the-board increase of 2%. That, as you can imagine, is equal but not necessarily equitable.”

PM: “Can you give folks just a few examples of what kind of factors we are weighing in this formula?

RS: “The first thing is, what you care most about is, what does it cost to provide instruction and student services, extracurriculars, athletics? What are those additional cost centers? Then there are particular mission activities: you've got some Research-1 institutions, Research-2, Research-3. There are some that have strong performing arts, and then there's operational. So, you factor all that together. We've got ways of calculating all of that.

PM: “Do we know which Illinois institutions are the most inadequately funded according to the formula?”

RS: “Yes, If you read the report, it does list and say, according to this proposal, and with making a whole series of assumptions all of which I'm sure will be discussed and adjusted further, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is the closest to fully funded. Nobody is fully funded, by the way, there is more money required for everybody. I believe the institution that's the furthest from adequacy, the way the formula is done, is Northeastern Illinois University. Then you've got a range in between. The furthest from full funding, NEIU, is only at about 40% funded. So, we've got some real work to do to make sure that everybody's got what they need to keep kids successful.

PM: “To meet the goals in the report, how much would we need to increase state investment over the next 10 to 15 years?”

RS: “I would say, if we really wanted to do this and do this well and do it in a way that allowed all universities to thrive as quickly and as powerfully as possible, we would want to be investing as a state no less than 100-135 million new dollars a year for the next 10 to 15 years. That's a lot. And that's a lot compared to the increases that we've been getting in the last few years. But if we could find our way to get to 100-135 million, I think we could do extraordinary things for our students and for our state.

PM: “Are you confident that we could do it?”

RS: “It depends, I think, on what the financial world looks like. I'm well aware that we are having this conversation when we're in a lean budget year. So, I think it depends in part on what happens more globally with Illinois finances, but we're one of a handful of states that has revenue of over a trillion dollars. The question is ‘How do we want to invest that?’ What are our priorities? It sure seems like this is a significant one that pays enormous dividends to all involved including the state and the state coffers. And it becomes, hopefully, one of those virtuous circles where we invest here and we were going to get that back in multiples.”

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.