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Looking at the Fragile State of Public Higher Education in Illinois

Attaining a college degree has never been more important for economic success than it is in the 21st century. The public university system is also the epicenter of the nation’s research apparatus, paving the way for the advancements that have affected every aspect of modern life. Yet, in spite of the essential nature of a thriving higher education system, Illinois is falling behind and jeopardizing the state’s ability to be a thriving economic epicenter for the United States and the entire world.

It is difficult to fully grasp the damage done to the higher education system in Illinois due to the recent, two-year long budget impasse. For the two years, Fiscal Year 2016 (FY 16) and Fiscal Year 2017 (FY 17), the state did not have a full budget.  During this time, all but one of the nine public universities experienced a decline of over 20% in their state funding from FY 15 levels. Three universities (University of Illinois, Northern Illinois University, and Southern Illinois University) and the community college system saw a decrease of over 35%. This required universities and community colleges to take steps in order to save money, such as layoffs, mandating furlough days for remaining staff, and shuttering whole programs.

  FY16-17 Ave. % change from FY 15         FY 18 % change from FY 15
Chicago State University $29,805,700 -18.0% $32,697,400 -10.0%
Eastern Illinois University $30,507,100 -29.0% $38,678,100 -10.0%
Governors State University $18,409,050 -23.5% $21,656,000 -10.0%
Illinois State University $55,258,850 -23.5% $65,004,000 -10.0%
Northeastern Illinois University $28,230,300 -23.5% $33,209,000 -10.0%
Northern Illinois University $58,747,950 -35.5% $81,983,500 -10.0%
Southern Illinois University $128,554,550 -35.6% $180,912,800 -9.3%
University of Illinois $415,221,800 -35.8% $583,005,900 -9.9%
Western Illinois University $37,377,400 -27.3% $46,300,700 -10.0%
Community Colleges $176,316,400 -36.0% $248,030,500 -10.0%


It comes as no surprise that during this time, most universities experienced a noticeable decline in enrollment. Between 2015-2017, only Illinois State University and two of the U of I campuses (Urbana-Champaign and Chicago) saw enrollment increases. The most drastic enrollment declines occurred at Chicago State University, Eastern Illinois University, Southern Illinois University, and Western Illinois University.1


Chart source: Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE)

While the last two years have been a trying time for the state’s higher education system, the problems that face our public universities and community colleges stretch back much farther. Beginning in 2002, Illinois has steadily decreased its investment in the public university system. As shown in the graph below, in the year 2000, state funds used to make up approximately 72% of the revenue received by universities, as opposed to 28% from university income funds (mostly tuition and fees). By 2015, state income funds made up just 39% of revenue, while university income funds made up 61% of universities revenue.2

State General FundsChart source:  IBHE

Community colleges have also seen a decrease in state funding since the year 2002. This drop is not as severe as the drop seen in university funding.  Community colleges also receive local property tax revenue. In 2000, state funds made up 28% of community colleges annual revenue, with local property taxes accounting for 55% and student tuition and fees making up 27%. In 2015, state funds accounted for 15% of their revenue, with property taxes accounting for 59% and student tuition and fees accounting for 44%.3

Trends in Educational Revenue

Chart source:  IBHE

With the plummet in state funding in 2016-2017, along with the 10% cut in funding in the FY 18 budget, this troubling trend continues despite the growing demand for college graduates in the economy.

Illinois also faces a problem when it comes to who is going to and completing college. Low-income and minority students, while seeing an increase in the last decade in terms of enrollment, are still lagging behind their non-low-income and white counterparts. Cost is a major factor behind these disparities.  Families with median incomes typically need to set aside 25% of their income to pay for a four-year college education; that number is 63% for low-income families.4

2-4 Institutions

Percentage of Family Income Needed to Pay for Full-Time Enrollment at Public Institutions, 2014

Chart source:  IBHE

This is made even more problematic when considered alongside the fact that the Monetary Award Program (MAP) is not keeping up with these rising costs. In the beginning of the 21st century, the maximum MAP award could pay for almost all the tuition and fees of a low-income student. This is not even close to being the case now.5
Figure 2Chart source:  IBHE

Competition rates are another area of concern, especially with minority students. Black and Latino college students in Illinois are much less likely to complete their degrees than their white counterparts.6

Figure 5

Illinois Graduation Rate Within 150% of Normal Time; By Level of Institution and Race/Ethnicity. 2015

Chart source:  IBHE

Overall, the current state of higher education in Illinois needs serious improvement. It can be reasonably inferred that the root cause of the problems in the state stem from the dramatic decrease in public investment. If adequately funding our universities and community colleges does not become a serious priority, then it is unlikely that we will see an improvement in any of these enrollment and completion numbers.  This in turn will hobble our ability to produce an educated workforce that will sustain Illinois as the economic powerhouse of the Midwest. We owe it to present and future college students in Illinois, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, to do better.


1.  IBHE Data Points
2. IBHE Fiscal Year 2017 Higher Education Budget Recommendations: Operations, Grants, and Capital Improvements
3. IBHE Fiscal Year 2017 Higher Education Budget Recommendations: Operations, Grants, and Capital Improvements
4. Midwestern Higher Education Compact 2016
5. Illinois Student Assistance Commission
6. National Center for Education Statistics

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