From the Desk of Robin Steans – Education Must Remain a High Priority for Illinois – Higher Education

Posted on May 08, 2020

This is the second in our three-part series that shares our views on the urgency of providing resources and ongoing support to early childhood education, K-12 and postsecondary. This is the postsecondary installment.

From the Desk: Education Must Remain a High Priority for Illinois – Part 2: Higher Education

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

We know that a college degree —be it a technical certificate or an advanced degree—creates pathways to stable employment and wages in an increasingly competitive economy. COVID-19 jeopardizes that pathway for the nearly 750,000 students in Illinois’ higher education system. Absent clear leadership and support, COVID-19 may permanently cripple the institutions that serve our students from historically marginalized communities and negatively alter the life paths of countless Illinoisans. For our state to recover from this crisis, we will need a strong, inclusive workforce and economy. Key to that is education and training.

The pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges for students and institutions, including a sudden shift to remote learning, new barriers to accessing instruction and basic needs, and drastic new costs for colleges and universities. As with K-12, college students without access to devices or high-speed internet are losing ground. Even students with access to their online coursework are likely to learn less, struggle more in related future courses, and have a higher chance of dropping out due to loss of in-person instruction.

The impact goes beyond learning loss. As unemployment skyrockets and family earnings drop, the high cost of postsecondary education in Illinois will further deter college enrollment and completion. National surveys found that in April 2020, 27% of high school seniors were concerned that their first-choice school would no longer be affordable for their family. Students from lower-income households are facing more challenging financial circumstances as both their jobs and family resources are more likely to disappear, threatening with it housing security, food security, and other basic needs. Further, these circumstances will exacerbate mental health challenges and will almost certainly affect completion rates.

Unfortunately, Illinois’ postsecondary institutions have extremely limited resources to respond to increasing student need, as disproportionate cuts to higher education over the last two decades have left many institutions operating on minimal budgets. From 2000-2015, higher education in Illinois saw a 41% decrease in appropriations and an additional billion dollar cut during the 2015-17 budget impasse. These cuts have forced Illinois’ postsecondary institutions to rely more heavily on tuition and fees for funding. Declining enrollment has cut this revenue source as well. This dynamic has created the incentive for some Illinois institutions to recruit out-of-state students’ higher tuition dollars at the expense of access for Illinois students. As the pandemic continues, its impact on our state budget will require state leaders to make very difficult decisions, but not all institutions are guaranteed to survive another wave of additional cuts particularly those that serve more of our students from low-income households, students of color, and first-generation students.

Across the state, the pandemic poses more significant and disproportionate barriers to Black and Latinx students, students from lower-income households, undocumented students, and others who already face obstacles in their pursuit of postsecondary education. Without deliberate intervention, COVID-19 will have severely inequitable impacts on our students’ postsecondary access and completion and ultimately on wages, employment rates, and other life outcomes – and with these impacts our states’ workforce and tax base for years to come.

What can Illinois do?

As Illinois responds to the impact of COVID-19 on our postsecondary students and institutions, we should keep the following in mind:

  • Emergency grants will be more important than ever to the growing number of students and families facing financial instability. Financial instability will also increase the likelihood that unanticipated costs may impact a student’s ability to continue and complete their higher education. Emergency grants – which are typically small amounts of a few hundred to a thousand dollars – have helped dramatically increase completion rates in institutions across the nation. While some federal dollars have been dedicated to emergency grants for a restricted set of students, emergency funds should be accessible to all, regardless of citizenship status or other barriers.
  • Institutions that serve more students of color and students from low-income households also tend to have the fewest resources and state funding, when they need it the most.  As Governor Pritzker considers how to use his federal CARES education funds, and as the state looks ahead to future budgets, we are overdue to develop a strategy to ensure funding equity and adequacy in our postsecondary space, as we have done in K-12.
  • Current high school seniors entering college in the fall will need immediate action to ensure that processes are supportive. As current seniors enter college with varying levels of support from their final year of high school, we must ensure that all students have a smooth bridge to higher education– potentially involving targeted academic and social support. In addition, adopting a consistent, multi-measure placement framework for all institutions could help ensure that students are not penalized for academic disruption they could not control and are not inequitably placed into non-credit-bearing developmental education due to COVID-19.
  • More federal dollars are needed if we are to adequately support students and institutions. While the federal CARES Act provided ~$440M to Illinois higher education institutions, this is not enough. National leaders are calling on the federal government to provide $50 billion in additional post-secondary resources and further relief from federal loans.  We should all raise our voices in support of additional aid.

We applaud the leadership of Governor Pritzker, the Illinois Board of Higher Education, Illinois Community College Board, and Illinois Student Assistance Commission during this time of crisis. We also commend the hard work our college and university leaders, faculty, and staff are doing to support our students. We know that this moment calls for difficult decisions, and we appreciate the efforts made to date to ensure clarity, consistent guidance and an equity- and student- first position.

Our collective goal must be first to support our students – especially those most vulnerable to the emotional, academic and economic impact of this crisis.  From there, we should work to make our institutions and system stronger, more resilient, and more responsive to student needs.

Sincerely and in partnership,

Robin Steans