Commentary, Opinion

Op-ed: Independent Colleges Key to Improving Illinois Higher Education

David W. Tretter
David W. Tretter. (PHOTO SUPPLIED)

Springfield, IL-(ENEWSPF)- Everywhere we turn these days, we are inundated with political ads with the right talking points: creating good jobs, reducing the out-migration of our population, improving the economic vitality of our communities throughout the state. What we don’t hear much of are concrete, realistic recommendations to make that a reality.

Having worked in higher education for 30 years, I see the impact of this lack of vision firsthand. We know what doesn’t work: a $1 billion disinvestment in Illinois higher education over the past 15 years, producing higher tuition, students and parents flocking away from our colleges and universities instead of to them, and some institutions on fiscal life support.

The last time the Illinois General Assembly and higher education stakeholders conducted a comprehensive review and set forth a roadmap for our state’s higher education needs? Fifty years ago, in the late 1960s.

We should be challenging the candidates for governor and the Legislature to use these final weeks of this election, and their new or renewed leadership roles, to take the 50-year higher education challenge. What are your plans to invest in our colleges and universities? What are you hearing from and telling your constituents about the future of higher education? Can we all commit to not repeat the budget impasse and turn around years of disinvestment that has hurt everyone?

To their credit, a group of legislators have started down this path. The Illinois General Assembly’s bi-partisan, bi-cameral Higher Education Working Group has recognized we have to stop digging the hole deeper and need to put action behind the talk of higher education support. They led some key initial steps this year, including protecting need-based MAP funding and starting to address the loss of students from middle-income families through the AIM High Scholarship program at the public universities.

But there is more work to be done, by everyone in Springfield. And our independent colleges and universities should be a key part of the conversation.

Statewide, more than 170,000 students from Illinois attend independent colleges and universities. Their attendance supports nearly 68,000 jobs, and helps create more than $20 billion in economic impact. Our campuses are huge economic engines.

Independent colleges and universities provide Illinois a unique advantage on a regional landscape that has become, unfortunately, increasingly competitive as our financial fortunes have turned in recent years. Independent colleges and universities keep more of our residents in-state: about 53 percent of four-year students in Illinois go to an independent college or university, compared to just 30 percent at Indiana, Wisconsin and Iowa. Today, by keeping more students here to learn and work, more than 40 percent of classroom teachers and more than 60 percent of all degrees awarded in healthcare come from our independent colleges and universities. State funding should be available, and prioritized, for independent colleges and universities to leverage private matching funds and help more than half of the state’s four-year college students.

Think about how much Illinois has changed in the past 50 years, and how different our lives are from what they were back then. Let’s challenge our elected leaders to recognize that if we want a world-class, competitive and innovative higher education system in Illinois, driving attendance at public or independent institutions shouldn’t be the primary focus. Keeping them in Illinois should be. We should provide incentives for students from all backgrounds to enroll at publics and privates, and give them the support they need to succeed on their path once they are there.

When Illinois students know their best opportunity to succeed is simple – attend here, graduate here, stay here – we all win.

David W. Tretter
Federation of Independent Illinois Colleges and Universities