The Importance of Higher Education Essay Sample

Sir Winston Churchill said, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it” (Churchill, n.d.). This statement certainly applies to funding for higher education in Illinois. This paper will provide a synopsis of the history of higher education funding in Illinois, a review of the societal changes that have impacted funding, and a discussion of the way those changes might influence the turnaround of Illinois public higher education funding. Looking ahead, there are difficult decisions that have to be made and there is no guarantee that members of the General Assembly and the governor will have the leadership and courage to take action. The underfunded pension system, an overabundance of comprehensive universities, and highly bloated administrations across Illinois are areas that need to be addressed if a turnaround in the funding of higher education is to occur.

In the mid-nineteenth century two important actions affected the history of higher education in Illinois. First, The Normal School movement came to Illinois to educate teachers who were in demand because of an increase in the number of common schools in the country. Second, in 1862 the Morrill Act was passed. According to Stanford University Associate Dean of Education, David Labaree (2008):

The state normal school, which started at the level of a high school, was a single-purpose professional school for future teachers. The curriculum offered a mix of liberal arts courses to give prospective teachers the grounding in subject matter they had not received in their earlier education. The curriculum also offered professional courses to give teachers a grounding in the art of pedagogy. Initially, the course of study lasted for one or two years (p. 292).

Illinois State Normal University (ISNU), the first normal school in Illinois, was founded in 1857 by Jesse Fell and other proponents of teacher training. ISNU was first located in North Bloomington. Eventually ISNU relocated to an unnamed the town, which was eventually named Normal after the school. On the first day of classes at ISNU, there were 19 students; by the second day, there were 29 students. At the end of the first year, ISNU had 127 students; 74 of the students were women and 53 of the students were men. Tuition was free to students who agreed to teach in a public school after their graduation. The establishment of normal schools in Illinois was a catalyst to the development of similar institutions of higher education throughout the state. That is, the expansion of the normal school set the stage for the development of multiple comprehensive universities throughout Illinois, which offered many of the same programs.

The Normal School movement in Illinois grew with the founding of the second teachers’ college at what is today Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. The Cook County Normal School was established in 1867 to serve the Chicago area. In the mid-1890s, two more normal schools were founded: Eastern Illinois State Normal School in Charleston, Illinois and Northern Illinois Normal School in DeKalb, Illinois. In 1902, Western Illinois State Normal School was founded in Macomb. By the turn of the century, there were schools designed to train teachers in all regions of the state.

There were significant changes in how Illinois funded higher education in the latter half of the nineteenth century. In the early years of growth of the normal school movement, Illinois funded education through interest from the college fund and the seminary fund. Funding in this period could be described as a shell game which involved moving money from one pot to the other to cover costs. It was certainly a preview of the state’s misallocation of funds that will cause problems in the future. When free public schools were established, the state took responsibility for funding the training for these educators, but there never seemed to be enough money to follow through satisfactorily on that commitment. As John Freed explains in Educating Illinois (2009), “Complaints about underfunding have been a constant refrain in the history of an institution (Illinois State Normal University) that was endowed on the interest paid on non-existent funds and that nearly failed during the Panic of 1857” (p. 75). Early in the state’s history of higher education, the number of schools grew too quickly and without careful consideration of the redundancy in the missions of the colleges. Illinois was responsive to the needs of trained teachers, which was good. However, the state’s responsiveness led to there being too many teacher training schools. It seems that those involved in developing the structure of higher education in Illinois did so with only their present needs in mind; they gave little thought to future needs or expenses. Such poor planning and the failure to consider future costs set the stage for many of the fiscal challenges today. Just as Illinois did not plan adequately for the future then, so too it is failing to do so today.

The early days of higher education funding in Illinois were challenging because of the rapid growth and changes happening in education. The funding for these teacher training colleges was cobbled together by the state with several treasury funds and the interest from those. Tuition was free to those who signed an agreement to teach in the free public-school system.

The passing of the Morrill Act in 1862 by President Abraham Lincoln was the second of two of the most significant actions that shaped the history of higher education in Illinois. The Morrill Act provided 30,000 acres of land to states for the founding of public universities focused on educating students about agriculture and engineering studies. States sold the land and used the proceeds of the sale to fund universities. That is how many universities, many of which are flagship schools, came into existence. Such institutions are known as land-grant institutions.

The Morrill Act was transformational because it created educational opportunities for working-class Americans who needed practical training in agriculture, mining, and engineering. The Morrill Act gave many students access to education that they would not have had otherwise. Indeed, prior to the passing of the Morrill Act, only the elite were able to attend liberal arts colleges to be educated in philosophy, the arts, and languages. Positive effects notwithstanding, the Morrill Act did not completely open the doors to education for everyone; race, for example, was used as grounds for exclusion. In 1890, however, the second Morrill Act was passed and was instrumental in addressing racial discrimination and providing much needed funding. In particular, it prohibited racial discrimination for schools that received these federal appropriations and provided funding for states to support land-grant institutions. Thanks to the Morrill Act of 1862, the University of Illinois was founded. Funding came mostly from the federal government with proceeds from the sale of land given to the state. Early days of funding for higher education were pieced together in a disorganized manner, but students were educated at low or no cost to them. Education was also accessible to more people than it ever before.

As Illinois entered the twentieth century, the state faced many challenges including WWI, the Stock Market Crash in 1929, and the Great Depression. Higher education survived the tumultuous early years of the 20th century. Then WWII happened. The United States was determined to provide more for the returning veterans than they did after WWI including funding for education. In 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act, also known as the G.I. Bill. As a result of the G.I. Bill, higher education experienced a spike in enrollment. According to D.J. Staley (2013), “At the time, few understood the impact the G.I. Bill would have on college enrollments. Optimists assumed that perhaps 10% of veterans would matriculate, and that most would instead seek employment. By fall 1945, 8,000 GIs enrolled in college, but by 1946 that number had swelled to one million; and by 1950, to two million” (p.1). Although funding for the G.I. Bill came from the federal government, it put a strain on Illinois higher education because of the rapid increase in enrollment. This meant more classrooms and faculty were needed to accommodate the influx of students. Such needs were the catalysts to the emergence of the community college system in Illinois.

The oldest community college in the nation is Joliet Junior College, which is located in Joliet, Illinois. Joliet was founded in 1901 by J Stanley Brown and William Rainey Harper. Brown and Harper “created a junior college that academically paralleled the first two years of a four-year college or university. It was designed to accommodate students who desired to remain within the community yet still pursue a college education. Within a few years, the concept of ‘community’ had grown to include students outside the existing high school district” (About JCC: History, n.d.). The rise of the Illinois community college system during the mid-1940s took some pressure off the four-year colleges and universities to accommodate large numbers of G.I. Bill students. The University of Illinois led efforts to set up “centers” to serve G.I. Bill students who could not be accommodated through the universities. There were several progressive visionaries who advocated for the development of the centers into a system which eventually became the Illinois community college system. The community college system further democratized education and allowed more students access to quality, low-cost education.

In 1965, the Illinois General Assembly formally established the community college system by enacting the Junior College Act. This created community college districts throughout the state and established a new funding structure. In the early days of community college, the ideal funding formula was one third from ICCB (Illinois Community College Board) grants, one third from local property taxes, and one third from student tuition and fees. Even today, in theory, community colleges are funded by the ICCB state grants, local property taxes, and tuition. The Illinois Community College Board’s website includes a fact sheet that shows the disparity in funding between universities and community colleges: “Illinois community colleges educate 65 percent of the students enrolled in Illinois public higher education but receive only 15 percent of the state’s higher education funding” (ICCB, 2017). This is the result of there being more universities than the state can fund, which leaves community colleges without adequate funds to educate their students. This disparity is problematic since nine out of ten graduates remain in their communities or Illinois after graduation, pay taxes, and thus are stakeholders in contributing to the Illinois economy. The disparity speaks to a failure to acknowledge the extent to which community colleges affect economic development in communities throughout the state. For example, community colleges help to meet the needs of the workforce and represent positive parts of local economies. Nonetheless, tuition is rising at community colleges, which are the most affordable option in education today.

Although the early 1980s were turbulent times nationally due in part to a difficult presidential election and rising inflation, higher education funding saw steady increases. In Illinois, there was support for funding, and this is supported by data from Grapevine available on Illinois State University’s website. It shows that funding from fiscal years 1970-71 to 1978-79 increased 71.5%. From 1978-79 to 1980-81 there was also an 18 % increase in state funding. Unfortunately, in the mid-1980s, the federal government slashed funding for higher education which meant there was more competition for state funds. In 1989-90, Illinois was mentioned as a “megastate” in the annual analysis on Grapevine based on its enrollments on numerous campuses. Illinois led the nation in the amount of state funds going to higher education with a 25% two-year increase in state appropriations. (Grapevine, 2018). However, in comparison to other states, funding for higher education in Illinois did not look impressive. That is, the state’s appropriation per capita ranked 33rd in the nation, which is well below the middle. Although Illinois had a lot of state funding ear marked for higher education, it was not sufficient per resident since Illinois has a large population.

Throughout the 1990s, funding for higher education in Illinois had an upward trajectory from year to year, but the increases per year were noticeably shrinking. In FY 92 and 93, that trend changed and there were actual decreases in higher education funding. State funding rebounded in FY 94, and things began to improve. The FY 94 report by Grapevine explains national trends with state funding: “After two of the most negative years on record in state support of higher education, FY 94 has been witness to a turnaround, if not some degree of restoration for state support of higher education” (Grapevine Historical Data, 1994; retrieved via Grapevine, 2018). Beginning in the mid-1990s, Illinois followed national trends of funding public higher education with state apportionments barely keeping up with inflation, and sometimes falling behind inflation. There are many explanations for why, but the most significant reason is that Illinois did not make higher education a spending priority. Illinois protected other spending priorities but it did not protect higher education. The lower-than-expected funding for the large number of colleges and students in Illinois was the beginning of the perfect storm.

By the beginning of the 21st Century, it was clear that Illinois’ funding for higher education faced an uncertain future. According to the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, “The Illinois general fund investment has been declining since FY 2000” (CTBA, 2017). Legislators actually “targeted” higher education for further decreases in funding. The projected decreases exceed those of any other core services in its funding category including K-12 education, healthcare, human services, and public safety. The chart below illustrates the gravity of the funding situation with FY2015 appropriations being less than FY2000 appropriations. When adjusted for inflation, this is much more significant and includes a 41% decrease in funding from FY2000. (CTBA, 2017).

(CBTA, 2017).

By disinvesting in higher education, Illinois legislators have abdicated their responsibility for the economic vitality of the state. Funding higher education is good public policy, and it is directly linked to economic growth.

In 2010, the Illinois Public Agenda for College and Career Success undertook a Higher Education Finance Study and prepared a report for the Governor and the Illinois General Assembly. According to this report, “Illinois is not ready to face its future” (The Illinois Public Agenda for College and Career Success, 2010). The report’s findings were alarming and sounded a call to action for the state that has yet to come from Springfield. Some of the report highlights include:

  • State support for colleges and universities and student financial aid has dropped $440 million in inflation-adjusted dollars over the past 15 years.
  • Budgets for community colleges and public universities in fiscal 2011 are at the same level of state resources as they received in FY99.
  • The burden of financing a college education has increasingly fallen on students and families.

The report recommended a five-point plan to reverse the trend of declines in funding higher education for Illinois. That plan included recommendations for adequate and consistent funding, reducing unfunded regulations, creating performance-based funding, and re-structuring the financial aid policies to reach the most vulnerable students. The most important of these recommendations are those related to the provision of adequate and consistent funding. Higher education institutions must be able to operate with a sense of security knowing they have enough state support to keep the doors open. Equally important is the consistency of having the year to year budgets which has not always happened in Illinois. In recent years, there has been uncertainty about having state funds and the concerns over possible rescissions. To date, the provision of adequate and consistent funding has not been reliable. Instead, there have been cycles of cutting, restoring, and cutting again. This is not acceptable. Phil Ciciora interviewed Professor Jennifer Delaney for an article in Illinois News Bureau. According to Delaney, “The time it takes to recover from cuts is increasing, and it has lengthened to such an extent that if there are further cuts, institutions may never recover those funds. If it takes a decade or longer to bounce back, it almost doesn't even count as a recovery” (Ciciora. 2010). This is devastating to Illinois higher education and new solutions are needed. This statement by Professor Delaney suggests that Illinois higher education may not be restored to the way it looked 5-10 years ago.

The budget impasse of 2015 lasted two years and continues to adversely affect higher education institutions in Illinois. Rick Seltzer describes the crisis and its aftermath as follows: “The full ramifications of the new budget -- and the end of the impasse -- can't be fully measured so soon. Still, it is clear that the impasse seriously hurt both institutions and students by forcing painful cuts, eroding enrollments and driving down confidence in public education. It is also clear that it has changed the outlook of many leaders for the future” (Seltzer, 2017). College and university administrators must move forward and demand that legislators take swift action to restore funding to pre-slashing levels. Higher education faculty, staff, and administrators must also do their part to curb outlandish spending and administrative bloat.

Looking ahead, Illinois higher education funding needs reform. It is time for the state of Illinois to learn some lessons from poor planning and lack of fiscal discipline to create a better future. There is no one fix for the funding problems facing colleges and universities. Resolving the problems will require a multi-faceted approach beginning with legislative appropriations. First, the General Assembly and the Governor must develop a plan that restores funding to reasonable levels for the fiscal year 2020, not levels of the fiscal year 1999. Second, institutional administrators must take a whack at bloat by cutting some administrative positions and salaries. According to an article in Illinois Policy by Ted Debrowski and John Klingler (2016), “Rather than keep tuition low, Illinois colleges and universities have taken the flood of federal and state monies available to higher education over the past two decades and spent it on a massive increase in administrative positions and exorbitant executive compensation. That growth and those higher salaries have dramatically increased the cost of university pensions, causing the state to redirect a majority of its higher-education funds toward retirement costs” (Dabrowski, & Klingner, 2016). The pension system is at a crisis level in the state. In a decade, pension costs have shifted from 20% of the state’s higher education funding to 53% today. Pension reform must be addressed soon. The taxpayers of Illinois can no longer afford the pensions that double during retirement years because of the 3% cost of living adjustments every year. Third, Illinois must reevaluate its higher education structure. It is time to consider consolidating and eliminating some of the universities in the state. The state can no longer afford to have multiple comprehensive universities. The Editorial Board of the Chicago Tribune (2018) recently published an editorial that shares some disturbing statistics about the significant numbers of Illinois college freshmen enrolling in out of state. Since 2000, this outward migration of college freshman has increased by 73%. The editorial also explains that enrollment has decreased at 10 of Illinois’ 12 public universities. (Editorial Board, 2018). The article advocates operating higher education more like a business and closing underperforming schools. Another proposal is to refocus the universities on special programs. This would allow schools to have a narrow focus instead of trying to offer everything for everyone.

Illinois public higher education can create a brighter future for students and families. To do that, the state must rethink the entire structure of higher education because the old system is no longer fiscally sustainable. New approaches and creative solutions should be accepted as legislators, administrators, and business leaders come together to save higher education in Illinois. The great people of this state deserve no less.


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