It is time to put the current budget debates focused only on HOW MUCH to slash college opportunity for Illinois’ students in perspective. Somehow in the current rhetorical fog covering the capital we continue to debate different ways to slice a shrinking pie among “starving” programs. What cuts will result in the most suffering? What can the state least afford to cut: human services, education, or healthcare? We ignore clear data that show that investing wisely in colleges to create a more educated workforce and commercialize research is a way to enlarge the pie by improving regional economies (where colleges are among major employers), raising per capita income, increasing tax revenues, and providing increased resources for other state needs.
At a time when a quality college credential is more essential and more valuable than at any time in our history, Illinois continues to engage in the same policy debates from the last 35 years. This has resulted in a policy and practice environment nationally that supports providing postsecondary credentials primarily to those who already occupy a privileged position in society. (Policies prior to that period were supporting movement in the opposite direction. Gaps were closing and access expanding through most of the 1960’s and 70’s.) Rather than engage in distracting debates about whether college is for everybody or whether somewhere we can find examples of waste that ultimately constitute an insignificant part of the budget, we must debate changes that make college a reality for millions more of those who need it most. As our economy continues to grow and reward “non-routine” jobs and offers promising careers increasingly only to those who possess the critical, analytical, and communication skills a college credential develops, the individual consequences for the massive and growing inequality in college opportunity in Illinois are becoming, literally, life threatening.
Unfortunately, calls for change grounded in the needs of individuals in underserved groups in the name of social justice or humane values are falling on deaf ears. As our society becomes increasingly stratified based on income and segregated by race it has become easier to objectify those being left out of the opportunity society. Few privileged people really know any people not like them. The “others” are easily blamed for their failure. “Those people” can be easily cast as lacking the grit to succeed. It is a macabre 21st century revival of the Horatio Alger myth used to justify the oppression of large immigrant populations more than a century ago.
A different strategic focus is needed to mobilize broadly around the significant policy, budget, and practice changes needed inside and outside of higher education to make college available to the tens of millions of people being left on the sidelines of this economy who most need it. This is a positive return on investment (ROI) strategy. The message must clearly demonstrate the consequences of a permanent undereducated underclass even for those who had, and whose children have, a relatively sure path to college and career. There is probably no better case study for making this “all boats rise” argument than Illinois in 2015.
Illinois is “leading” the nation with a multi-billion dollar deficit crisis. Draconian cuts in education, social services, and almost every area of state government have been proposed. The unemployment rate, while improving, remains stubbornly above the national average. Difficult “revenue enhancement” strategies are being discussed. At the same time, a recent workforce analysis showed 150,000 jobs standing open in Illinois because employers cannot find people with the appropriate credentials and knowledge to fill them (Bishop-Josef, S., Noble, S., & Watson, S., 2015). Workforce projections clearly show that two-thirds of all the new and replacement jobs in Illinois for the foreseeable future will require a college credential. Many believe the only way out of this crisis is to grow our way out with a thriving economy. They are probably right, but believing we can create that economy given the current education level of our workforce is, at best, magical thinking.
In the midst of all this, Illinois continues to strive to reach an education goal set in 2009: 60 percent of its workforce with a quality college credential by 2025. The current percentage of the Illinois workforce with a two- or four-year degree stands at 43 percent. That reflects a three percent gain since 2009 that, sadly for the country, places Illinois among the best performing states in the nation. It is, of course, nowhere near the pace of improvement needed. The Illinois Board of Higher Education recently analyzed the impact of reaching the 60 percent goal for Illinois. The analysis shows that were Illinois at the 60 percent level in 2015 the increase in per capita income would produce more than $900 million in additional tax revenue for the state annually. In a separate economic analysis (McMahon, 2015) showed that investments in Illinois higher education produce dramatically higher returns than taxpayers could earn on taxed funds in any other area.
If Illinois is going to grow its way out of its budgetary quagmire, it must invest now in creating the college-educated workforce its recovery requires: a workforce that also will place far fewer demands on it prison, public assistance, unemployment, and Medicaid systems. It also must recognize that the number of patents its universities are producing lead the nation and are a pathway to commercialization, business start-ups and jobs.
Given Illinois’ demographics, almost all of the growth in educated people the state needs must come from low income and people of color, including adult learners. That is true for almost all states. These are the very groups we have failed most over the years, helping produce a level of income inequality in Illinois that is among the ten worst in the nation (McNichol, E., Hall, D., Cooper, D. & Palacios, V., 2012).
Illinois cannot afford a debate over whether these people are “college material” or whether “college is for everyone.” It cannot continue to debate whether to cut off one or both arms of its colleges. The state and its higher education system must mobilize, invest, and redesign policies and practices to provide a quality college credential to millions more of its citizens. These actions will solve the deficit crisis and increase Illinois’ economic vitality.
Illinois is a large state with particularly large challenges, but it is not alone. Recent data show many states facing similar challenges. The investment required to dramatically raise education attainment levels is admittedly large. Some states are rising to that challenge. The return on that investment to create a college-educated citizenry is far greater and, most importantly, it benefits everyone. It is equally true that the costs of a growing permanent undereducated underclass threaten us all.
So, at this crucial time, let us forego the distracting sideshow debates, avoid whining about the impact of cuts, and keep our eye on the prize. We must focus on how to most wisely invest in higher education, ensure accountability for return on that investment, and create the workforce and economy that will truly turn around Illinois.
Bishop-Josef, S., Noble, S., & Watson, S. (2015). Ensuring Illinois’ global success. Retrieved from http://www.readynation.org/wp-content/uploads/ReadyNation-IL-Skills-Report.pdf
McMahon, W.W. (2015). Benefits and costs of state budget changes to higher education. University of Illinois: Institute of Government and Public Affairs. Retrieved from www.igpa.uillinois.edu/budget-toolbox.
McNichol, E., Hall, D., Cooper, D. & Palacios, V. (2012). Pulling apart: A state by state analysis of income trends. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Retrieved from http://www.cbpp.org/research/poverty-and-inequality/pulling-apart-a-state-by-state-analysis-of-income-trends