As the state and country continue on the path to recovery from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the need for every Illinois student with college aspirations to earn a college degree is more urgent than ever. And yet, the current path to earning a degree from a public university here in Illinois shows otherwise. Two decades worth of cuts to Illinois’ public university funding has left the system woefully underfunded; universities now get half the appropriations they did in the early 2000s. Worse still, the manner in which Illinois has allocated its funding—99.5% of which is appropriated without a formula—has left many institutions that more often serve Black, Latinx, low-income, rural, and first generation college students with the least resources to do so.
Until Illinois adopts a new approach that adequately and equitably funds our public universities, our students will continue to be harmed and their futures negatively affected. A college degree remains the surest path to the middle class with benefits to both our students and the communities they call home.
Consider that of all the jobs added since the Great Recession, 95% have required college degrees. Further, that unemployment rates tend to drop as education levels increase, and as a person’s education level rises, their wages tend to rise as well; while a high school graduate earns a median salary of $34,880 a year, their college-educated counterparts earn a median annual salary of $57,920. And beyond the financial benefits they receive, college degree holders have a tremendous impact on the communities where they work and live. A person with a bachelor’s degree will, over a lifetime, contribute roughly $278,000 more into their local economies than someone who has only a high school diploma and $44,000 more in local and state taxes, which help keep Illinois going and growing.
Suffice it to say, the best path forward for Illinois is one where prioritizing higher education investments leads to an inclusive, equitable economy. Right now, however, declines in state funding—particularly of universities that are more reliant on state funding, which more often enroll the Black, Latinx, low-income, rural, and first generation college students—have forced these institutions to raise their prices to offset the impact. The result: Tens of thousands of Illinois students are being priced out and losing out on the opportunity of earning a college degree and a more prosperous future. Or, they are choosing to leave Illinois altogether. And either way, Illinois loses.
Illinois’ students cannot go on this way. Identifying a better path forward is urgently needed.
Starting this month, Illinois has the opportunity to transform how it invests in its future by moving toward creating an equity-based approach to funding its public universities. Illinois can adopt a stable, adequate, and equitable funding model. With the creation of the Commission on Equitable Public University Funding, charged with researching, modeling, and ultimately recommending specific criteria and approaches for an equity-based higher education funding model for Illinois’ public universities, we are one step closer to a more equitable future for Illinois. It is a process that stretches to July 2023, and we look forward to supporting the Commission’s work every step of the way.
The Coalition for Transforming Higher Education Funding is a growing network of individuals and organizations from across Illinois who believe all Illinois students should be able to attend a public university that can support their academic dreams and provide better economic opportunities for their future.