Plan to privatize higher education proposed

By Tyler Davis, @TDavis_DE

The Illinois public higher education system could have a complete overhaul if one Illinois state senator gets his way.

State Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, is working on legislation that will convert Illinois’ public universities into nonprofit, private institutions over a six-year period. Brady said the plan was not submitted for the General Assembly’s consideration this year, but the bill started the discussion of the state’s role in funding higher education.

Brady said during this six-year period, state money appropriated for higher education would transition to grant funding.


“This would increase the grant amount and give back to those universities through student recruitment,” he said in an interview. 

He said the move would give money directly to students instead of universities, in turn, increasing enrollment at state universities and making students more responsible for their education. In Brady’s plan, those who graduate in four years and live and work in Illinois will have their debts repaid by one-eighth each year. 

Essentially, if a college student graduated in four years, the state money he or she received would be forgiven if that student lived and worked in the state for eight years. Students who graduate in more than four years would have debt forgiven by one-tenth and would have to live and work in the state for a decade for full forgiveness.

Brady said privatization would cut universities’ dependence on state funds and decrease burdensome state regulations.

David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, said this privatization process has already begun.

“This sounds like a dramatic new idea, but as a practical matter, it’s already been happening,” he said. “The level of state funding has been going down, the levels of private support and tuition dollars have been going up.”

Yepsen said the legislation is more of a tool to begin conversations about the role of the state in funding higher education. He said the private moniker may give people negative ideas about the universities—higher tuition costs and less regulations that prevent discrimination—but not too much would change from an operating standpoint. State money has funded roughly a quarter of the university’s budget over past five years.


Yepsen presented some positives, referencing Brady’s comments that state regulations impede schools’ operations. He said hiring and firing of employees, updating information technology systems and getting new materials take especially long because of government regulations.

“It takes longer to hire a secretary on campuses than it does for a major corporation to hire a CEO,” he said.

Yepsen said state regulations are helpful but at certain points, they make for more paperwork and bureaucracy than they are worth.

SIU President Randy Dunn said he has seen similar bills presented in other states and the debate is good for the democratic process.

Dunn said he is not in support of privatization but does realize some state laws for public universities are difficult to maneuver. For example, purchasing equipment for a state university involves processes that private universities do not have to undertake.

“In one area alone—procurement and purchasing—we anticipate that just the procurement rules that we have to operate under cost the SIU system anywhere between $20 to $24 million a year,” Dunn said.

Former SIU President Glenn Poshard said the answer to these regulation concerns should not be changing the whole system. He said the state should instead create a task force that addresses these regulation concerns.

Dunn said regulation concerns do not outweigh one big aspect—the sheer amount of state money the university gets, which normally tops $200 million a year. That amount makes up about a quarter of the university’s total funding, according to its operating budget.

He said private institutions, which typically have higher tuition costs, obtain 70 to 80 percent of their funds from tuition dollars.

“Is the state ready to double tuition its tuition bill to the thousands of students who receive an education at a state university?” Dunn said. “The reason states have historically funded higher education is to provide access, is to provide opportunity.”

While Brady’s plan does not explicitly call for tuition increases, Dunn and Poshard are worried it may be a byproduct of this new system.

Poshard, a former U.S. senator, said a potential increase in tuition as a result of state funding cuts or privatization would drive more students away from college.

“Look at what the board is considering right now—a potential 10 percent increase in tuition for students,” he said. “How many more students is that causing not to be able to access SIU or any other public higher education institution that’s looking at those kinds of increases?”

While the bill still needs work and will have to wait until next year to go before the General Assembly, Yepsen said funding higher education needs to be questioned.

He presented other countries’ models, like the German higher education model, which pushes some young people toward universities and others toward vocational school.

Yepsen said the classic support system may be out-of-date and without revamping the public university process top to bottom, Illinois higher education may suffer.

“Students can’t afford to keep paying tuition increases, taxpayers cannot afford to keep putting money in,” he said. “Changes are going to happen whether we like them or not and it would be better to do them rationally than just to kind of sink into and lull into some second-rate [industry].”

Dunn said he is advocating for the same state money the university has received for decades but the debate will continue, and the problem of funding higher education is not easily solved.

“Given the economic challenges we’re facing, the continued questions of the public about accountability and the role of the state in its funding, whether it’s looking at privatization or not, I don’t think these questions are going away,” he said. 

Alex Henderson, Brady’s chief of staff, said the senator will meet with university presidents to gauge support for the plan and it could be formally presented for vote within the next few years.

Tyler Davis can be reached at [email protected].