Editorial: How to lure college students back to Illinois

Daily Egyptian file photo

Daily Egyptian file photo

By Chicago Tribune Editorial Board

Across Illinois, high school seniors are deep in their quest for the ideal college. They’re visiting campuses and taking tours. They’re poring over college guide books and comparing notes with friends. They’re thinking about what their families can afford and how close — or far — they want to be from home.

Many of those students, however, already have made one decision: They won’t attend college in Illinois.

Why? Several reasons. Public universities in other states often present a better value proposition. Tuition may be lower, state government support may be more stable, and some more specialized campuses elsewhere aren’t trying to be all things to all students. What’s more, in Illinois, many years of choppy finances have forced institutions to cut programs and professors to flee.



Take a look at the accompanying chart: A startling 10 of the state’s 12 public university campuses suffered overall enrollment declines in 2017, some plummeting by double digits. Some have been hemorrhaging students for years but maintaining the same attitude: What, us worry? Nope, not as long as the legislature keeps doling out the cash and not asking too many questions about how well it is spent.

We believe Illinois can rebound and win back students — if state leaders overhaul and consolidate the state’s scattered system. If they stop the Thunderdome death match among universities battling for students in virtually every academic field. If they force colleges to specialize and offer advanced curriculums in the areas where each school can be distinctive. All these universities should share a single goal — to offer Illinois’ young people an array of campuses with common basics but less redundancy in upper-level and graduate programs.

We’re glad to hear that lawmakers in Springfield are listening. State Sen. Chapin Rose and Rep. Dan Brady, both Republicans, are sponsoring a bill that we hope could kick-start this debate. “We have 12 of everything right now,” Rose tells us. “We need to start funding our strengths and stop funding to what we’re not good at. So we’re not subsidizing mediocrity or weakness.”

How to do that? Under the Rose-Brady proposal, the Illinois Board of Higher Education would evaluate campuses and rank their academic programs. It would also rate the campuses’ “economic efficiency.”

The bill goes no further, but we would: We’d use this data to revamp the state’s university system. If a campus excels in engineering, for instance, that school becomes a magnet for engineering students. If a geology or economics program is 12th out of 12, then that should be scrapped so the school can focus on developing the prowess it has already demonstrated in other areas. No more subsidizing mediocrity.

Further consolidating back-offices and purchasing would make sense. The nine separate boards — yes nine — that currently oversee 12 state college campuses should be whittled down to a fraction of that — not because boards are costly, but because they think parochially, not holistically.

Talk of streamlining sends an icy chill through administrators and legislators who fiercely defend their spendy, top-heavy fiefdoms. Some behave as if universities exist primarily to prop up local economies.

Gov. Bruce Rauner has talked about strengthening and rationalizing this scattered system. Governor, dive in. Centralized oversight would jettison duplicate administrators, overhead and curricula. It would let Illinois send more money to classrooms. This is essentially how Wisconsin, California and New York do it. Georgia and several other states are on the same path.

The aim of the Chapin-Brady bill isn’t to downsize Illinois schools; it’s to attract more students to stay in — or come to — Illinois. That starts by demolishing the status quo. “Let’s learn from this whole (budget) mess, and let’s see how we can better apply things in higher ed,” Brady tells us. “If we don’t, the dwindling enrollment numbers are going to continue.”

Many of the students who leave Illinois for out-of-state campuses never return. They don’t come back to take jobs. They don’t return to raise families. They don’t start businesses or lead foundations in Illinois. Student by student, U-Haul by U-Haul, Illinois squanders its future.


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