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Editorial: To save middle class, protect our universities

FILE - In this Jan. 6 2010 file phopeople pass AlmMater statue University Illinois campus UrbanIll.  Illinois' interim President

FILE - In this Jan. 6, 2010, file photo people pass the Alma Mater statue on the University of Illinois campus in Urbana, Ill. Illinois' interim President Stanley Ikenberry said Thursday, March 11, 2010, that as many as one in five students at the state's flagship campus might be able to graduate in three years. (AP Photo/David Mercer, File)

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Updated: February 25, 2012 8:15AM

First, the bad news: State funding for public higher education nationwide has declined again — this time by 8 percent, according to a study released Monday.

Then the good news: Illinois — after years of repeatedly trimming budgets for higher education — is trying to hold the line in the coming year.

We know Gov. Quinn and the Legislature will have another difficult job balancing the state’s budget once the number-crunching begins in earnest. They must also grapple with university pension shortfalls and rising health care costs for university employees. But avoiding more cuts to the state’s core higher education mission is a goal that should be embraced by anyone who believes that a quality college education should not be an exclusive privilege of the wealthy.

In recent years, the trend has been all in the wrong direction. For example, the state’s direct appropriation to the University of Illinois was about $804 million in 2002, but has dropped to about $664 million today — a cut of about 17 percent before inflation. The state’s other public universities have seen comparable trims.

On top of that, the state in the past couple of years has fallen farther and farther behind in giving the universities their money. The University of Illinois has $340 million in unpaid vouchers.

As a result, the schools have had to keep raising tuition. This month, the University of Illinois trustees voted to boost tuition by 4.8 percent. On top of even larger increases in previous years, the effect will be to steadily price lower- and middle-income families out of the state’s universities altogether.

In fact, Glenn Poshard, president of Southern Illinois University, worries that the erosion of public funding will lead to “the closing down of the middle class in America.”

That’s why it’s good news Illinois is trying to get smarter with its education dollars. A new P-20 Council has been set up to develop continuous statewide educational standards from preschool through graduate school so that education on every level is coordinated as efficiently as possible. And university presidents have agreed to try out a performance-funding model in which part of the state’s appropriations will be based not on last year’s budget but on such metrics as graduation and retention rates.

The great land-grant and regional public universities helped create the middle class, to the point that 80 percent of Americans earn their higher education at public universities. There’s been a lot of talk lately about the importance of the middle class and social mobility — the ability of any American who has the smarts and gumption to climb the ladder of success.

Where does that climb begin? With a good — and affordable — education.

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