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Here’s a new way for Illinois to put more money into our colleges and universities

‘Evidence-based funding’ is working for our K-12 schools. For public higher education, it could provide a permanent solution to our underfunding crisis, starting with colleges and universities that serve those with the greatest need.

This spring, Illinoisans saw dramatic strikes by faculty and staff at three public universities (Chicago State, Governors State and Eastern Illinois), while another campus (Northeastern Illinois) narrowly averted a walkout. This was an unprecedented situation in our state, and it should have made one thing crystal clear to the public, the media and our elected leaders: Illinois has a serious problem with higher education funding. It is urgent that we find a solution.

Our students — particularly those who are Black, brown and low-income — cannot wait. Here is the brutal reality:

State support for higher education has declined significantly over the last two decades, and is now 46% less in real terms than in 2000. That means dedicated faculty and staff at most Illinois colleges and universities have seen minimal, if any, wage increases for years, and some have even suffered pay cuts.

During this same period, tuition costs rose over eight times faster than median income — by 127%` after inflation. Students and families are shouldering the burden of underfunding, as colleges and universities are forced to hike tuition to make up for lost funding.

Put simply, the long-term disinvestment by the state has made higher education increasingly inaccessible, particularly for those who would benefit from it the most.

This is not a new problem. But former Gov. Bruce Rauner made it significantly worse by holding the budget hostage to his extremist political agenda, starving our colleges and universities and eliminating Monetary Assistance Program (MAP) grants for thousands of our neediest students, particularly in Black and Latino communities.

Research proves the positive impact of a college education on everything from wages and economic mobility to economic development and community health. We must find a way to provide stable, equitable higher education funding. And we can.

An evidence-based funding (EBF) model is the answer. Just as they did for our public PreK-12 schools in 2017, Illinois lawmakers should consider taking this path for higher education.

Illinois is funding ‘what works’ for public schools, but there’s still more to be done

As instituted for our K-12 schools, EBF guarantees that no district receives less than it did the previous year. When more state money becomes available for education, as it has nearly every year since EBF began, districts with the greatest need receive additional funds first.

An EBF model for public higher education could provide a permanent solution to our underfunding crisis by ensuring equitable funding and improving access and affordability, starting with the colleges and universities that serve those with the greatest need.

We gratefully recognize Gov. J.B. Pritzker for consistently proposing much-needed annual budget increases for higher education. But students, families, faculty, and staff deserve a systemic solution to our broken system.

Daniel J. Montgomery is president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers.

William McNary is co-executive director of Citizen Action/Illinois.

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