Illinois public universities in trouble

By Gus Bode

Dear Editor:Illinois’ public universities are being privatized. No one, especially a government official, has said so directly, but it’s true nonetheless. It’s happening slowly and quietly, year by year, as state money is drained from higher education.

Since the end of World War II and the introduction of the GI Bill, affordable public higher education has been not only the motor of the national economy but also the surest means of class mobility. More than any other American institution, public higher education has meant opportunity for our citizens. Unhappily, the public guarantee of this opportunity is being eroded.

Recently in Illinois, state appropriations for public universities have shrunk by nearly 15 percent. Illinois universities now receive state support for only about one-third of their expenses. To make matters worse, while the state was drastically reducing appropriations to higher education, enrollments statewide were surging, and the costs of operating institutions of higher education were growing, especially for utilities, technology, health care, mandatory reporting to state and federal agencies and library materials.


Our public universities and community colleges now are forced to emulate private institutions and raise tuition to new levels. In Illinois in 2004, most tuition increases exceeded 10 percent while state appropriations to the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, which administers state grant and scholarship programs, have not kept up with the rising cost of tuition.

In short, even if higher education in Illinois survives budget cuts, the institutions may not be recognizable. Middle- and lower-class students won’t be present in the same numbers. Those students who do attend will take much longer to graduate because they often will have to work longer hours while in school to pay tuition.

The solution to the problem of privatization of our public higher education system is both clear and politically difficult. We must find the public will to maintain affordable higher education, and public K-12 schools must become less dependent on property taxes and universities and community colleges less dependent upon a flat income tax. Both of these tax systems unfairly disadvantage our most vulnerable citizens.

Without doubt, Illinois is suffering a serious budget crisis, and it is not easy for politicians to change tax structures. But if current budget trends continue, irreparable harm will be done to our state institutions. Since 2000, the system of higher education in Illinois has tumbled from the highest rated system in the nation to the eighth. At this rate, future generations of bright and ambitious young people of modest means will no longer be able to achieve their goals in life. And we will all be poorer for it.

chairman, Department of Accountancy