A State of Decay

Joni FinneyLaura PernaImagine a place where a high percentage of citizens go to college, a large proportion score high on the entrance exams, and politicians work to keep the tuition affordable. 

Not long ago, you wouldn’t have had to imagine. You could have looked to the state of Illinois, which was one of the country’s top performers in college preparation, enrollment, and affordability as recently as the 1990s. 

But a new study from two Penn GSE professors tells the story of a serious decline for higher education performance in this once high-performing state. 

The first installment of a five-state study from Penn GSE professors Joni Finney and Laura Perna, A Story of Decline: Performance and State Policies of Higher Education in Illinois finds that, during the past decade, the state has seen substantial declines in higher education performance while making virtually no progress in addressing persistent inequities. 

Specifically, Illinois has seen an across-the-board declines in college enrollments among recent high school graduates and working adults. College enrollment and degree completion rates continue to be substantially lower for Blacks, Hispanics, and low-income residents. The inequities are most pronounced in Chicago and, with a fifth of the state’s population and a high proportion of its minorities, that city will be key to rebuilding the state’s higher education system. 

Contributing to the decline in higher education performance is the precipitate rise in tuitions, just as family incomes – and state support for need-based grants – are dropping. From 1999 to 2009, median family income in the state fell by 6.5 percent while college tuition increased 100 percent at public four-year universities and 38 percent at public two-year colleges. Meanwhile, state support for need-based grants saw a 28 percent decline.

“One of the most dramatic changes in Illinois in recent years is the decline of its long-standing success in providing state-funded need-based financial aid to students,” says Perna. “Because of shortfalls in state funding, state need-based grants are now awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, leaving substantial numbers of eligible students with no state financial aid.” 

Some segments of the Illinois population are particularly at risk. For example, fewer Hispanic students complete college in the standard time frame: As of 2009, 44 percent of Hispanic college students – as compared to 66 percent of white students and 69 percent of Asian Americans – graduated within six years. 

These numbers don’t bode well for Illinois. “The state is walking away from its historic commitment to educational opportunity at the very time that the Illinois economy demands a more educated population,” Finney observes. 

According to the study, in 2020 – less than a decade from now – 55 percent of the state’s workforce will need at least an associate’s degree. To reach that goal, the state must see its production of associate’s and bachelor’s degrees rise by an ambitious 5.4 percent. Unless Illinois improves attainment rates, the preparation of its workforce is in even greater jeopardy. 

What’s behind the decline? Certainly, a stalled economy has contributed, but the Penn GSE researchers found that Illinois’ slide predates the current financial downturn. One force contributing to the state’s troubles is the 1995 reorganization of its higher education governance system, which abolished the “system of systems” and replaced it with more localized university governance. While well-meaning, that decision created a leadership vacuum, with the once-influential state Board of Higher Education greatly weakened in the process. What’s more, a culture of political corruption under two problematic governors has further compromised the Board and a partisan state legislature has consistently failed to address the challenges facing Illinois’ once-enviable system of higher education. 

A Story of Decline: Performance and State Policies of Higher Education in Illinois is the first installment in a five-state study of the impact of state policies and practices on higher education performance. Findings from the other states in the study – Georgia, Maryland, Texas, and Washington – will be released later this year. The project was sponsored by the Institute for Research on Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education

To read the full report on Illinois, click here. For a summary, click here.


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