Over the last three years, Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration and the state legislature have made big investments in higher education, and it’s paying off. Illinois is not seeing just encouraging overall post-COVID-19 increases in our freshman enrollment numbers but also large increases in the number of Black and Latino students attending our public colleges and universities.
After two decades of bad news about Illinois’ disinvestment in higher education and as college systems across the country experience enrollment declines and political threats, we should savor this hope for the future of our state. Whether this is the start of a trend that sets us up for an inclusive and booming economic future or a little spike in an otherwise downward trajectory will depend on what the Illinois legislature does next.
During his annual budget address in February, Pritzker showed he intends to keep his promise to continue reinvesting in higher education by recommending another $100 million increase in Monetary Award Program (MAP) funding for 2024. We strongly urge the legislature to include this in the budget. This would represent a 75% increase in funding since 2019 and could be game-changing for our students. Now that funding levels are projected to enable all eligible students to receive grants, award amounts would meaningfully increase to up to $8,500 per student, making college more affordable by covering on average 55% of community college tuition and 38% of public university tuition.
Combined with Pell Grants, this would make college tuition-free for nearly all low-income community college attendees — that’s more than 50,000 students.
It’s important to remember that the past 20 years have given us little to celebrate for Illinois higher education. Over this period, college and university appropriations were nearly halved, and MAP grants were cut by more than $100 million as college prices rose, denying 1.7 million need-based grants to eligible students. These funding decreases were punctuated by the 2017 budget impasse, in which universities nearly closed and students didn’t know whether they would receive the MAP grants they needed to stay in college.
As a result, no state lost more public university students from 2008 to 2018 than Illinois, while our community colleges weathered similar declines. Just as matters were improving, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, exacerbating the deep inequities our institutions have seen for decades, particularly when it comes to our students of color and those from low-income households.
We’ve begun to see a turnaround in the last few years, which has been punctuated by bold funding increases for our students and our colleges. We need the state legislature to now do its part to ensure that this historic increase in MAP funding gets passed. This increase represents an investment in providing our students an affordable path to a college degree and ultimately better economic opportunities. Colleges and universities are the engines by which many of our students gain the knowledge, skills and credentials they need to go on to achieve their dreams, support their families and contribute to their communities. By investing in our students, we’re also investing in our state’s future prosperity.
While funding is necessary, it’s not enough to truly ensure every student has what they need to earn a college degree. We must also distribute institutional funding in an equitable way, giving each and every university the resources they need to help students succeed. Currently, there is no system or formula by which Illinois distributes its allocated funding for institutions each year.
This is why the Commission on Equitable Public University Funding is just a few months away from making a crucial recommendation for an equitable funding model for our state’s public universities. We must not wait until that formula is agreed upon, passed in legislation, implemented and scaled — that will take time.
There are steps that lawmakers must take now to get our state started down the road to a more equitable distribution of funding. The legislature should follow the Illinois Board of Higher Education’s recommendation and distribute the proposed 7% increase in appropriations based on the number and concentration of low-income students a university enrolls. This model was used during the pandemic when distributing emergency funding and is a good stopgap method to use while we work on a long-term solution, one that does not continue to compound existing inequities in our distribution model, especially given these historic increases in funding.
The future vitality of Illinois is dependent on these continued investments in our students, colleges and universities, but the funding must be distributed where it is needed most. If the Illinois legislature does right by our students this legislative session, our state will continue down the path of creating a future in which every community can thrive and where every student can afford a college degree. We cannot allow the alternative.
Lisa Castillo Richmond is executive director of the equity-focused nonprofit Partnership for College Completion, a member of the Commission on Equitable Public University Funding and a founding member of the Coalition for Transforming Higher Education Funding.