November 5, 2021

By Lisa Castillo Richmond, Executive Director, Partnership for College Completion | Robin Steans, President, Advance Illinois | Cherita Ellens, Executive Director, Women Employed

College costs are rising. Many students struggle to afford a public university education. There might not be a difference in costs between staying in Illinois or leaving the state altogether. And most people would have to go deep into debt to do either. So the question that we are all grappling with is who can afford to go at all? 

These sentiments have been growing over the last 20 years for a generation of Illinoisans, and are now so widespread that they have been normalized. We cannot accept this as normal, they are not normal.

Illinois has gone from being one of the best to one of the worst states in terms of college affordability. The state has cut funding to public universities as much as any state over the last two decades, but this hasn’t cut overall costs – it has merely shifted them to universities, who have then been left with little choice but to push much of them onto students. 

All 12 of our public universities have been hurt by this. However, just as not all students can afford tuition increases, all universities cannot withstand these cuts in the same way. Due to the fact that Illinois has no actual model for how it distributes 99.5% of its funding (possibly the only state where this is still the case), each university has been periodically asked to cut the same percentage from their budgets, which are now half what they were 20 years ago. That might appear fair until you consider that our universities are different and enroll different student populations. Equity doesn’t mean making sure every budget gets cut, it means giving each university the resources it needs to successfully serve its students. 

Disinvestment has been bad for everyone, and it has disproportionately hurt universities that tend to enroll more students of color and students from low-income households. Though they might get less attention, these institutions are essential in providing future opportunities to Illinoisans. Because they are more reliant on state funding, these cuts have forced them to steadily raise their prices; the 10 universities that receive the least funding from the state now have to charge their lowest-income students the second highest prices in the country. Unsurprisingly, they have 21,000 fewer students than they did a decade ago. Illinois now has the unenviable distinction of the greatest university enrollment declines in the country. Again: this is not a ‘normal’ that Illinois can accept. 

With a new state-level effort set to kick off on Nov. 9, Illinois could be poised to turn this around and become a leader in higher education. In June, the legislature passed SB 815, which creates a bilateral, bicameral commission that will ultimately recommend an adequate, equitable, and stable funding model that Illinois can adopt. Just as funding cuts put us in this position, increased and equitable investment in our public university system can put us back on track.  This is urgent – for our kids, our returning adults, our families, our collective futures, and the economic vitality of our state.  

University appropriations funding is complicated, in-the-weeds policymaking, which is why they’ve been cut so dramatically and so quietly over the past two decades. However, for all of Illinois to have an inclusive, booming economy, and for each student to have a fair shot at a prosperous future, we’ll need to make sure that the SB 815 commission succeeds in its charge – to make equitable investment its number one priority – and that the Illinois legislature takes action on the Commission’s recommendations.  

Lisa Castillo Richmond is executive director of the Partnership for College Completion. Robin Steans is president of  Advance Illinois and Cherita Ellens is president and chief executive officer of Women Employed.

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