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Study gives low marks for higher ed's direction in Illinois

A study says higher educatiIllinois suffered during administrations former Govs. Rod Blagojevich George Ryan.  |  File photo

A study says higher education in Illinois suffered during the administrations of former Govs. Rod Blagojevich and George Ryan. | File photo

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Updated: January 5, 2012 8:07AM

An intransigent Illinois government with no clear goals or consequences for the state’s higher education has turned Illinois from one of the country’s most affordable and accessible states to get a college education to a place where fewer students are seeking degrees or able to afford to attend state schools, a recent report by a pair of Ivy League researchers claims.

“A Story of Decline: Performance and Policy in Illinois Higher Education,” argues that as recently as the mid to late 1990s, Illinois distinguished itself from the rest of the country in terms of the affordability and attainability of a bachelor’s or associate’s degree.

“Illinois had long had a reputation of being such a strong performer as well as a reputation for public policy in higher education,” said Laura Perna, who coauthored the report with her University of Pennsylvania colleague Joni Finney. “When we looked at the data there has been a decline, and that raised questions for us. What happened?”

The report traces the problems to a number of factors, including:

† An ineffective, weakened Illinois Board of Higher Education after a dramatic reorganization in 1995

† Political corruption and political appointments in state higher education under former Governors George Ryan and Rob Blagojevich

† No consequences or incentive for improving performance. For example, the General Assembly requires the state board to present an annual report on closing persistent gaps in degree attainment between different racial or ethnic groups, and the board complies. But no action appears to follow from the reports, Perna and Finney write.

Cuts to the state’s Monetary Aid Program, once one of the strongest state-based financial aid programs in the country, and a 100 percent tuition increase at four-year state schools from 1999 to 2009 are adding to the difficulties of Illinois students attaining a college or associate’s degree.

Perna said the cumulative effect may be that Illinois’ work force won’t be prepared for future jobs that require advanced education.

Stanley Ikenberry, the former president of the University of Illinois, agreed with the conclusion that Illinois higher education was weakened under Ryan and Blagojevich.

“I think for whatever combination of reasons higher education slipped off the agenda of state government,” he said. “While higher education was very much on the agenda for Jim Thompson and Jim Edgar in Illinois I don’t think higher education was on the agenda at all for George Ryan and even less for Blagojevich. If you’ve got a governor who doesn’t really care, that’s a major loss.”

Ikenberry said he believes at the university level, the schools adapted to the changing situation.

“I don’t think the actual quality of education in Illinois has suffered because of this,” he said. “I think tuition levels have gone up higher than they otherwise needed to go if the state had engaged in more rational planning and used their state dollars more effectively.”

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