Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Wednesday April 22nd, 2015, 5:58pm

Rauner Budget Would Be 'Catastrophic' For Illinois Higher Ed System, Report Finds

Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner's budget proposal seeking to slash higher education spending by $387 million next fiscal year "would have direct and devastating effects on individual campuses" and students, according to a new report.

The report by Young Invincibles, a Millennial research and advocacy group, notes that Illinois has already cut higher education funding spent directly on students by $500 million over the past five years.

If approved, Rauner's plan to further reduce higher education spending by 31 percent in the 2016 fiscal year, beginning July 1, "would be catastrophic" for the state's higher education system and Illinois students who have "already been pushed past the breaking point by disinvestment in higher education," the report reads.

Young Invincibles wants state lawmakers to not only reject Rauner's proposed budget cuts, but also bring higher education funding back to pre-recession levels. Restoration of pre-recession funding would help Illinois get closer to its goal of 60 percent of adults aged 25 to 64 having a postsecondary degree or certificate by 2025. Illinois adopted that 60 percent target back in 2008.

"Without sustained investment in higher education, Illinois stands no chance of meeting its goal of 60 percent of the workforce holding a college degree by 2025," writes report author Eve Rips of Young Invincibles. "The 60x25 goal represented a substantial commitment to the economic future of Illinois and to the financial well being of young adults across the state. Failing to commit to the goal will leave a large portion of workers set up to fail in a workforce that increasingly requires higher education credentials."

Ahead of Rauner's first State of the State address back in February, Young Invincibles and the student-run Roosevelt Institute Campus Network released a 10-item, Millennial-driven policy platform developed by young Illinoisans with the NextGen Illinois project. Brenna Conway, Illinois director for the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network, said Rauner's plan for higher education spending runs counter to the priorities of young Illinoisans. 

"What we've heard from young people is that we need this funding increased, and that [a] decrease in funding will be harmful to them," she said. "It will be harmful to them in the sense that it will make it more difficult to pay for tuition, books and housing. We are also concerned that it would decrease a lot of the access to college for a really diverse population and diverse ideas, which we see [as] essential to our state schools. At the Roosevelt Institute, we're really concerned that cuts like this will deprive us of the chance to hear some of the next great policy ideas, like the ones we came up with in the NextGen report."

University officials, meanwhile, have detailed what Rauner's proposed budget cuts, if approved, could mean for their local institutions. To name just a few examples, as many as 250 faculty and staff members at Eastern Illinois University could be laid off and Southern Illinois University might have to reduce signature career programs if lawmakers pass the governor's fiscal plan.

Rauner's proposed budget would also mean a $209 million cut at the University of Illinois.

"A budget cut of that magnitude would substantially harm our students and the people of Illinois by most severely impacting the university's core education and research missions," University of Illinois President Robert Easter has stated.

Illinois students also face the prospect of higher tuition costs and fees.

"While some campuses, including the University of Illinois, are pledging not to increase tuition for the 2015-2016 school year, there can be no question that if the budget cuts remain in effect, it will mean increased financial cost to students," Rips notes.

Over the past decade, tuition at public four-year universities and two-year colleges in Illinois has already increased by an average of 57 percent and 38 percent, respectively. At the national level, tuition has ticked up by an average of 42 percent at public four-year universities over the same time period, according to the report.

If the governor's cuts go through and are maintained, "tuition will ultimately continue to increase," Rips writes, adding that, "State disinvestment consistently leads to increases in tuition and consequently to high levels of student debt." 

"Illinois students and their families simply cannot handle these increases - shifting even a small portion of the burden of the proposed cuts toward tuition could quickly move Illinois from the fifth highest tuition in the country to the worst tuition of any state," the report adds. "First-generation students and students of color already struggling to afford and complete a postsecondary degree are disproportionately impacted by these spikes."

Also of note, as tuition has gone up in the state, fewer low-income Illinois students have had access to the state's Monetary Award Program (MAP). That's according to a separate report jointly released early this year by the Fiscal Policy Center at Voices for Illinois Children and Women Employed.

The MAP program helps low-income Illinois students pay for tuition at more than 130 colleges and universities in the state.

Nearly 170,000 eligible Illinois MAP applicants did not receive assistance in the 2012-2013 school year due to increased program demand and lack of funds, the groups found. Between the 2008-2009 and 2012-2013 academic years, for example, the college affordability program saw eligible applicants tick up 45 percent, or by 120,000 students, while MAP funding declined 3 percent over the same time frame.

"Without investment, current attainment gaps will continue to persist and worsen," the Young Invincibles report reads. "Illinois' tuition, already abysmal, will continue to skyrocket, and our state's need-based MAP grant program, even if current funding is maintained, will only meet a dwindling fraction of student need. To return to levels of state funding not seen in decades, when a college degree is more important to economic success than ever, would be a true embarrassment for the state."

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