Austin Berg: High price for perverse priorities

Austin Berg: High price for perverse priorities

By AUSTIN BERG

Joni Sorce feels conned.

Her daughter graduated from Illinois State University in 2014. They now share more than $60,000 in debt. Sorce's youngest daughter will graduate high school this spring, but her family can't afford another degree from the Land of Lincoln. She's looking for opportunity elsewhere.

"You have to be in the upper class or in poverty to be able to afford a good four-year college in Illinois," Sorce said. She and her husband are self-employed in Streator, Illinois.

"The middle gets weeded out."

Meanwhile, nearly 100 ISU administrators take home more than $100,000 annually, according to the most recent data from the Illinois Board of Higher Education.

Higher education is about students' pursuit of knowledge, but Illinois universities have sought more material ends: Richer administrative payrolls, multimillion-dollar pension payouts, and other reckless spending choices have been the norm for years. This has led to rapidly rising tuition costs that restrict college access for too many families, not to mention legacy costs that crowd out scarce dollars for young scholars.

So those families send their students elsewhere. And many don't come back.

Illinois has been losing the border war for young talent since at least the turn of the century, likely losing more than 150,000 students on net to other states from 2000 to 2014, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Is it any wonder why? To go with the state's dismal economic climate, tuition and fees at Illinois' public universities have risen anywhere from 74 to 112 percent since 2006. ISU hiked average tuition and fees by more than 90 percent, to $13,666.

And costs are only going up.

Lisa Maag is a proud Illinois mother who watched her daughter attend college elsewhere. After finishing in the top 10 percent of her class at Alton High, Lisa's daughter did the simple math. The cost of attending her dad's alma mater, University of Illinois, was more than triple her tuition offer from the University of Missouri.

"It's a no-brainer," Maag said. "It's sad that she could not attend U of I, but it's nice that there's no student loan burden hanging over her head or ours."

University of Illinois charges the highest average in-state tuition in the Midwest, compared with each state's flagship university.

University officials across the state are blaming the budget crisis for the mess in higher education. But Illinoisans shouldn't be duped.

Gridlock isn't why the system is facing financial troubles. Rather, administrative costs have effectively pulled higher education out of reach for families without the means to pay, or the means to leave.

Illinois spends more money on administrative and retirement costs than on university operations. The number of university administrators in Illinois grew by a third between 2004 and 2010, while the number of students grew by less than 3 percent, according to a report from the Illinois State Senate Democratic Caucus.

Now, more than 50 percent of the state's $4.1 billion budget for public universities is spent on retirement costs alone.

This isn't a funding problem. It's a priority problem.

For further evidence, take a look at how universities are dealing with the budget impasse. Officials at Northeastern Illinois University, for example, have a simple message for students: It's not about you.

The university was set to fire about 300 student workers due to a new state regulation that requires schools to eliminate all state-funded student and temporary positions before implementing furlough days for university staff.

So while about 1,000 NEIU employees will take five days of unpaid leave in March, hundreds of students would have lost access to jobs that help pay for their education.

Who are these schools supposed to serve, anyway? Thankfully, a legal loophole will allow the school to fire and rehire the student workers.

The truth is that Illinois' head honchos of higher education for years took state and federal dollars and spent them not on student needs, but on their own desires. And then they hiked tuition. If these institutions had spent their money wisely, the whole state would benefit from new talent flocking to Illinois. But we know that's not happening.

Thankfully, some universities seem to be taking smart steps to reduce costs, such as eliminating programs that overlap with similar public colleges and right-sizing payrolls. But the priority problem still remains. And tuition costs are still rising.

"I don't appreciate the people who have fixed the system to make it impossible for someone wanting to better themselves through higher education, and yet they get things like automatic raises every year," Sorce said.

Austin Berg is a writer for the Illinois Policy Institute. He wrote this column for the Illinois News Network, a project of the Institute. Austin can be reached at aberg@illinoispolicy.org.

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