Illinois has set an audacious goal to have 60 percent of its workforce with a high quality college credential by 2025. Meeting this goal is essential to the quality of life for Illinois citizens. Those left out of the college mix will be relegated to the life of the working poor since two thirds of all new and replacement jobs going forward (and almost all of the middle class jobs) will require a college credential.
Meeting the goal also is essential if the State is to grow its way out of the current financial crisis. Without a 21st century, college-educated workforce Illinois will not only fail to attract good jobs; it will have trouble keeping those already in the State. If 60 percent of our workforce had a two or four year degree today it would likely mean more than $900 million in additional tax revenue for the State annually. This is the return on investment (ROI) of educating Illinois without even including the reductions in expenditures for public assistance, unemployment, health care, and crime which have occurred in other states as education levels rise. Educating Illinois is the most certain way to grow our way out of the budget crisis.
The leadership in Illinois faces difficult choices in the current budget climate. The State can choose to focus only on trying to cut its way out of its budget problems producing draconian reductions in state services, including support for public higher education. Illinois is already solidly in the bottom half of states in its support for higher education per full time student. Further proposed cuts to higher education would result in Illinois being sixth from the bottom in state support, grouped with a state like Michigan (not an economy we would want to emulate). After experiencing modest growth in our education attainment levels over the last five years (a tribute to our colleges in these difficult times) 43 percent of the State’s workforce has a two or four year college degree. The Illinois Public Agenda for College and Career Success details the goals and strategies so that more Illinois residents have affordable access to high-quality postsecondary education opportunities to prepare them for the workforce. However, tuition increases, declines in state need based aid, and other factors are producing declining enrollments across the higher education system. Sixteen thousand more students leave Illinois to attend college than enter the State to do so: a talent drain that threatens our economy. We cannot afford to accelerate these trends.
Another solution to budget woes would be a balanced approach to the crisis. This balanced approach would include new revenues, reductions, and greater efficiencies. This is the approach advocated by thoughtful analysts of Illinois’ budget woes in independent think tanks across the State. Ideas for the best way to generate revenues are varied but the need to explore the possibilities is clear. Many of the revenue strategies have been voiced by state leaders on both sides of the political aisle: reinstate, at least partially, the lapsed state income tax with a plan for gradual reduction over time, put 21st century tax policies in place including progressive taxation and increase revenues from the fastest growing service sector of the economy. Paired with less draconian reductions and greater efficiencies this approach would allow the State to move forward without so severely damaging education opportunity and the services needed by the most vulnerable of our fellow citizens.
The Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE) has proposed a budget for higher education that is basically flat for next year with the exception of an increase in MAP funding to address our college affordability challenges. IBHE believes, based on months of meetings with colleges, that this is a responsible budget. The balanced approach would allow for the IBHE budget to be enacted. Given such a budget the Board is committed to launching, in cooperation with state leadership an “efficiency and effectiveness” initiative in Illinois to ensure every dollar we have is used to the maximum benefit of students.
IBHE also is committed to working with state leadership to streamline the State regulatory environment that adds significant costs to colleges that students must bear, providing “regulatory relief” to our system. Streamlining strategies include: (a) cutting through the complex maze of procurement regulations that demand large staffs to address and threaten colleges’ ability to participate in multi-state purchasing agreements for insurance, technology, etc. that already save tens of millions of dollars and could save more (b) eliminating policies that add costs but not value to capital construction efforts, and (c) reducing the burden of unfunded mandates that have grown like stalactites in a cave over time.
All of this can and should be part of a balanced approach to preserving fairness in education opportunity in Illinois. The alternative, massive cuts to university budgets, will (a) further reduce affordability for middle and low income families (b) increase the talent drain out of state (c) threaten the programs and services needed to provide a safety net supporting college completion for first generation, adult, and underrepresented students at a time when college gaps for these groups are growing (d) undercut our ability to grow a workforce to support economic development, and (e) threaten research that has to date made Illinois one of the leading states in generating patents that support business and job creation (almost all of Illinois patents are generated by higher education institutions). IBHE will do all it can to support decisions in Illinois that embrace fairness and target smart investment in strategies that have demonstrated ROI. Educating a 21st century workforce is one such strategy and a very important one. We can keep moving forward, even in these difficult times, with a balanced approach to our challenges.