Some state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle seem open to at least a few of the reform ideas recently proposed by an Illinois think tank to help reduce higher education costs and make colleges and universities more affordable to students in the state.
The state’s university systems and community colleges have had to slash budgets and reduce class offerings since last summer’s state budget impasse began. In turn, the Illinois Policy Institute has issued a call for structural reforms, including a freeze and an eventual reduction in tuition costs, cuts in administrative personnel and their perks, and efforts to steer employees in higher education into less costly 401K-type retirement plans.
Both Republicans and Democrats also agree that the loss of the Monetary Award Program (MAP) grants for Illinois college students has been especially disruptive to the higher education system.
“The lack of MAP grants are killing all the colleges,” Rep. Charlie Meier (R-Okawville) told the Madison County Record.
The MAP program in the previous budget funded nearly 8,000 grants for Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, amounting to $30.3 million; McKendree University received 707 grants for a total of $2.8 million; Lewis and Clark Community College, 539 grants totaling $527,104; and Southwestern Illinois College, 1,402 grants for a total of $1.1 million.
Republicans have argued for a dedicated funding stream for higher education and generally reject the idea of having to borrow from the following year’s budget to pay for current programs.
Sen. Bill Haine (D-Alton) said he supports exploring options for tuition stability for college and university students, but he said in recent years, the main upward push on tuition has been the drop in state support for universities.
“As the state has cut higher education, the campuses have largely turned to students to make up the difference,” Haine stated in an email to the Record.
Meier said he wasn’t sure if the state could afford a freeze on tuition costs, but he expressed openness to the idea of having new employees in the higher education systems moved into 401K plans rather than the current pension system.
“We must keep our promises to current employees but look at what we can do differently from this day forward,” the Republican lawmaker said.
Haine agreed that such a transition toward a 401K plan would have to apply only to new employees.
“I’d be interested in seeing an analysis of what the start-up costs would be for switching to a different system,” he said.
Haine also said that the issue of higher education administrative salaries and perks had been examined by an Illinois Senate investigative subcommittee last year.
“The subsequent report continues to drive reforms that I have supported,” he said.
Meier pointed to excessive pensions that are now being paid to those who have retired from the higher education systems in Illinois.
According to a study conducted by Taxpayers United of America, the 25 highest-paid pensioners in the State Universities Retirement System are receiving between $190,000 and $570,000 annually.
“Everything is falling in around us, and we have to change,” Meier said. “We need to be actively working on a budget. It’s taken 33 years to get to this point.”
Though he hopes that legislators and the governor can reach a compromise soon, Meier is not overly optimistic, arguing that Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) does not seem to be interested in straightening things out.
Haine expressed an upbeat attitude about the prospects for compromise.
“I remain optimistic that other lawmakers and Gov. (Bruce) Rauner will realize how crucial higher education is to our state’s economy and that we will find common ground in the near future.”