David W. Tretter

Never has the danger of election cycles and political expediency been more apparent – or more threatening – for higher education in Illinois than it is right now.

Many legislators are serious about creating balanced budgets, embracing long-term planning and helping provide concrete funding commitments for our most valuable, core services and programs. To a person, Democrats and Republicans see the tremendous value their local community colleges, public and private colleges and universities create for their entire regions: billions of dollars in economic activity, and a brighter future for thousands to stay and thrive close to home.

But 2020 has only exacerbated the wide chasm between their best-laid plans and political realities. The coronavirus pandemic’s economic blows are deep and long-lasting for all, and the defeat of the proposed “Fair Tax” constitutional amendment makes the state’s budget deficit and future financial prospects more bleak than ever.

Already, the solutions on the table as lawmakers prepare to return for some semblance of a legislative session in 2021 are dire. They will have to work with Gov. JB Pritzker on a menu that includes severe, devastating budget cuts of 10 to 15 percent or more, allow the state to go more deeply in debt and risk unprecedented financial impacts and junk bond ratings, or support increasing tax revenues. The reality is some combination will be needed.

In that process, it is imperative we bring together policymakers to rally behind the most valuable priorities that should be protected. Illinois’ need-based Monetary Award Program (MAP) has broad-based support around the state and is just what we need to preserve as our universities and colleges rebound.

Higher education has suffered a brutal series of cuts in the past 20 years, more than nearly all areas of state government since 2002. Yet MAP continues to be a source of hope and light for the thousands of students who receive it.

Just like state and federal aid is keeping businesses open and families in their homes now, MAP is the stabilizing force for low-income students – often minority and going to college for the first time in their family’s history. We have more work to do to help minority and underserved students, yet MAP already provides a lifeline for more than 50 percent of all African-American and Hispanic students going to Illinois colleges and universities. Our next challenge for those students and their families is to work with our institutions and legislators to reduce student debt loads and remove their obstacles to success beyond high school.

The return on the state’s investment in MAP is real and sustained. Every student who pushes himself and herself to go to college leads to more people working in better jobs, depending less on government support and paying more in taxes. When students from families who have never experienced going to college have a good experience, they plant roots here and create more positive activity for our communities that multiplies over time.

The pandemic has created new economic realities. Prospective employees’ education and preparation will matter more than ever. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment during the coronavirus shutdowns was much more stable for those with college degrees than those without – as much as a 25 percentage point difference.

Supporting MAP will help needy students, their institutions, and provide critical support for the 175,000 Illinoisans who work in our public and private higher education institutions with an economic impact of more than $50 billion.

As Illinois works through its first steps toward recovery, higher education is ready to get to work – for our students today and those coming tomorrow. A strong commitment to securing MAP funding will help smooth the path ahead, and create hope for a better future in these trying times.

David W. Tretter is president of the Federation of Independent Illinois Colleges and Universities in Springfield.

Trending Video