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Flanked by lawmakers and supporters, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs a sweeping criminal justice reform bill into law during a ceremony at Chicago State University on the South Side, Monday, Feb. 22, 2021. | Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Under a proposed funding formula, public campuses like Chicago State and Governors State universities, which serve high percentages of underrepresented students, would get additional money to help these students not only enroll — but finish. Here, Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs a criminal justice reform bill into law at Chicago State on the South Side in 2021.

Ashlee Rezin

Ambitious plan unveiled to boost college spending in Illinois — and more fairly distribute money

A new plan to stabilize higher education funding in Illinois and make it more equitable would increase the number of underrepresented students getting college degrees and serve as a national model, researchers and advocates say. But the proposal faces an uphill battle in the Illinois Legislature because of its hefty price tag.

“Why would we educate young kids, and then they get to high school, and then we can’t figure out what to do with them next,” State Senate Majority leader Kimberly Lightford said during a press conference on Wednesday. “So I’m going to stay positive and optimistic that the resources will be available.”

Lightford is a co-chair of the Illinois Commission On Equitable Public University Funding, which developed the funding proposal over the course of the past two years. If adopted into law would lead to a $1.4 billion increase in taxpayer money supporting four-year campuses over the next 10 or 15 years. Illinois currently spends about $2.5 billion annually on its 12 public universities. It hasn’t been introduced as a bill yet.

More revolutionary, researchers say, is the way money would be distributed between the campuses. The formula, devised by a group of lawmakers, educators, advocates and researchers, would calculate how much each university needs based on the demographics of its students as well as its institutional mission.

“I don’t think any state has that,” said Xiaodan Hu, a professor of higher education at Northern Illinois University. “We have the potential to lead some of the national discussion about quantifying funding adequacy for public universities.”

Under the formula, campuses like Chicago State and Governors State universities, which serve high percentages of underrepresented students, would get additional money to help these students not only enroll — but finish. The aim is to reverse decades of disinvestment that have most impacted Black, Latino and low-income students.

“As academics, we tend to be very critical,” Hu said. “But I am really proud to be in the public system in Illinois and seeing how we’re attempting to tackle these thorny issues.”

Currently the state is one of a handful that doesn’t have a funding formula for its higher education system. Advocates say that has left the door open to volatility and funding disparities between the state’s larger universities and its smaller regional campuses that serve so many of the state’s marginalized students.

“Those that have the means and the know-how and the connections to lobby for more dollars are able to do so,” said Christian Perry, policy director at Partnership for College Completion, a nonprofit advocacy group. “And those institutions that we value who don’t have that are [forced] to pick over what’s left.”

Since 2000, state spending on public universities has declined by 46% in inflation-adjusted dollars, despite recent increases under Governor J.B. Pritzker. According to the bipartisan Center for Budget and Tax Accountability, public funding used to make up about 72% of university revenue with the remaining 28% coming from tuition and fees. Now that ratio has nearly flipped. With it, the cost of average in-state tuition and fees has more than doubled.

“We are making higher ed more unaffordable for everyone in Illinois generally but, in particular, for low-income families and families that have been marginalized for decades,” said Ralph Martire, who leads the Center for Budget and Tax Accountability and was a member of the state funding commission.

The college-going rate among Illinois’ Black students, for instance, has declined by more than a third since 2010. Among those who do go to a public university in the state, just 37% of Black students graduate compared to 70% of white students, according to the commission’s report.

“Institutions that are more reliant on state appropriations and those with less access to other resources were hardest hit by these funding shifts,” Perry said. “Yet these same institutions have historically supported a greater majority of our underrepresented groups.”

At Chicago State University, for instance, where 80% of students are Black, enrollment dropped by nearly a third from 2017 to 2021, commissioners found. Over that same time period, enrollment at University of Illinois Chicago and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign grew by more than 10%.

“The increases in enrollment helped some of these institutions weather the state appropriation cuts, while the lost tuition revenue exacerbated the impact of state cuts at institutions losing enrollment, especially among students of color,” the report said.

The funding formula proposed by the state commission seeks to reduce universities’ reliance on tuition by increasing state support, but would require a 12% increase over each of the next 10 years to reach its target. In his recent budget address, Governor J.B. Pritzker proposed a 2% increase in funding for public four-year institutions in the fiscal year that begins in July.

“For a lot of the regional public universities that are not getting too much revenue from research. from external partnerships, from tuition and fees, they really need this [formula] to get things started,” Hu of Northern Illinois University said. “But increasing annually by 12%? That’s an ambitious goal.”

Lisa Kurian Philip covers higher education for WBEZ, in partnership with Open Campus. Follow her on Twitter @LAPhilip.

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