With the failure of the fair tax amendment on Illinois ballots this fall, there are fewer options on the table to begin closing Illinois' budget hole and adequately fund services essential to our state economy including higher education.
The possible reform of Illinois' longstanding flat tax system couldn't have been more timely as the state continues to reel from the public health and economic fallout of the COVID-19 crisis that has disproportionately affected low-income families and families of color. The pandemic has subsequently been more likely to disrupt the college plans for students of color and low-income students, threatening to widen disparities in college degree attainment, which remains the surest way to the middle class. Now particularly, having a college degree will be crucial in helping students and families across the state recover from this crisis.
On its own, the projected $3.4B in revenue a fair tax system would have brought in wouldn't have been enough to fill our projected state budget shortfall or close existing equity gaps, but it would have been a critical first step. In the immediate term, it could lead to level funding for FY2022, which can provide stability for students who rely on state-based financial aid to access college, and to institutions that depend on state funding for critical programs and services. In the long-term, it could position Illinois to implement a more adequate and equitable higher education funding model that prioritizes funding to institutions serving marginalized communities.
On this side of the election now, our most vulnerable colleges and universities instead remain in the same predicament they were in prior to the referendum: Underresourced due to underinvestment by the state, and bracing for possible cuts that would serve only to worsen their financial position and harm the financially vulnerable students they are more likely to enroll.
We do not envy the budget decisions our lawmakers will have to make in the months ahead. However as they weigh their options, we urge them to make their decisions through an equity lens. For our higher education system, that means lawmakers approaching the funding of higher education as a critical investment in our state's future economic stability and workforce, and prioritizing institutions with significant financial need and the historically marginalized students they disproportionately serve, while making key decisions about that investment.
In our new study, Higher Education Appropriations: A Framework for Equity in Illinois, the Partnership for College Completion discusses this, offering lawmakers a playbook for making higher education appropriations that:
- Invest in higher education, even in fiscal crises
- Consider the different funding needs of 2-year and 4-year public colleges and universities
- Prioritize financially vulnerable students and institutions
- Ensure funding comes with accountability and transparency
As we hold out hope that additional federal funding will soften the blows of COVID-19's drastic impact on our state economy, it's critical our lawmakers take the steps that will provide underresourced students more stable footing as they pursue a college degree - whether that be during this crisis or in its aftermath. Adopting a more equitable approach to funding higher education is a strong and necessary next step.
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