June 21, 2022

By Connor Wood | The Pantagraph

NORMAL — Illinois State University is glad to see recent legislation that aims  to address equity at the state’s public higher education institutions, the university’s diversity and inclusion lead said. 

“We really welcome this plan, and a lot of the elements we are already implementing,” said Doris Houston, interim assistant to the president for diversity and inclusion.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed House Bill 5464 — the Higher Education Omnibus Bill — on June 7. The legislation requires Illinois’ public universities and community colleges to create equity plans to address disparities for historically underrepresented groups, including students of color, adult students, students from rural areas, women and students with disabilities.

The Illinois Board of Higher Education and the Illinois Community College Board will manage the rollout of the plans.

IBHE will help analyze institutions’ current situations, then develop a framework for the schools to work on to create their own plans, said the agency’s executive director,  Ginger Ostro.

“There isn’t a one-size fits all,” she said. 

Illinois State University progress

One area where Illinois State will be glad to have IBHE support and advice is in setting benchmarks to measure improvement, Houston said. The benchmarks will give the school interim goals, but it can be difficult to decide where to set them.

In other areas, she said, the university is well set as it implements equity programs. The university has been collecting data on topics like retention rates and parsing data to look at specific colleges, departments and even classes that seem to pose challenges, Houston said.

Part of that process includes a five-year review of ISU’s 2017 Campus Climate Task Force Plan, which Houston presented to the Academic Senate. The review pointed towards improvements in increasing diversity in the student body and more supports for students and employees from historically underrepresented backgrounds. But it also noted there was still work to be done, especially on graduation rates and recruiting faculty and staff from underrepresented backgrounds.

Houston hopes to hold another campus climate survey, which had been planned for 2020 but was delayed due to the pandemic.

The bill was passed with IBHE support and will help the state’s public universities and colleges progress towards the goals laid out in that agency’s latest strategic plan, Ostro said.

“Key in that plan, there’s three goals. The first is to close equity gaps for students who have been historically left behind,” she said.

The equity plans will be unique to each school, Ostro said. The challenges and solutions at one school might not apply at another.

“I think it’s an opportunity to build on what schools have been doing on their own,” Ostro said.

Houston said that the statewide strategic plan provided a model for schools to follow, while also adding in their own needs and challenges. The university will also be looking at the equity plans developed by the 25 members of the Illinois Equity in Attainment Initiative.

“There really is a structure and an outline for the equity plan,” she said.

Other changes

Under HB5464, community colleges will also have to develop equity plans.

Heartland College is waiting for the Illinois Community College Board to review existing plans at the state’s public community colleges, spokesman Steve Fast said. The school does not anticipate having more details from ICCB until the fall.

Heartland is in the process of rolling out some of its large-scale equity plans, including implementing it Workforce Equity Initiative grant which is helping historically marginalized groups pay for Heartland programs and associated costs. 

The state’s fiscal year 2023 budget makes an important investment in equity and financial help for higher education students, Ostro said. That includes a more than $120 million increase in funding for the Monetary Award Program, which provides grants for Illinois students to attend college.

Tied into those goals are two other bills signed by Pritzker earlier this month. House Bill 4201 requires the state’s public universities and community colleges to designate a staff member as a “benefits navigator” to help students apply for federal, state and local aid programs they qualify for. Senate Bill 3991 amends the Illinois Higher Education Savings Program to allow the state treasurer to increase the deposits for children from financially insecure backgrounds. 

The Illinois Higher Education Savings Program will provide an initial deposit of $50 in a 529 College Savings account for every child born in the state starting Jan. 1, 2023. Similar savings funds have led to a threefold increase in children who go on to attend college and a four-fold increase in children who go on to graduate from college, the governor’s office said.

Ostro said the investments included in the budget and recent legislation will help grow the state’s economy. 

“A core idea here that we keep coming back to are that educational equity and Illinois’ economic growth are inseparable,” Ostro said.

Read the original article: https://pantagraph.com/news/local/education/watch-now-illinois-looks-for-equity-plans-at-public-colleges/article_e9d21f8a-f178-11ec-8463-bf7b2086989c.html