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Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017 12:21 am

Making Illinois safe for the Bs

Two legislators want to reform higher ed

 

Public higher education is in trouble in Illinois. Enrollment at most of the former “normal” schools is down, costs are rising and the best in-state students are signing up to attend out-of-state schools. What to do? The Chicago Tribune editors know. In a recent editorial, the paper proposed changes in governance structure and operations intended to entice more college-age kids to go to school in Illinois. I won’t say that all their ideas are irrelevant to the problem they purport to solve, but if you lived next door to any of the Trib editors and your lawn mower broke, I’m sure they would very kindly offer to lend you a hammer.

For example, the Trib wants to see consolidation of back-office operations and purchasing. This was a bold idea in 1917. The paper also would centralize governance in fewer system boards to jettison duplicate administrators. Good – but after being tossed overboard by the campuses they would just wash up in Springfield.

The Trib, ever helpful, was elaborating on proposals contained in a bill introduced by state Sen. Chapin Rose and Rep. Dan Brady (Republicans from Mahomet and Bloomington respectively) that seeks to stop Illinois’ brain drain by changing much about the way the state of Illinois runs its colleges and universities. Were each of these proposals a completed college course, it would amount to a major in muddle.

New programs would be subject to the rigor of the market; if a course or a degree program doesn’t attract enough takers to pay for itself, it shouldn’t be taught. Making popularity the test of a course means surrendering the power to set public education priorities to kids who are still figuring out how to operate a coin clothes washer. Education, remember, is one industry in which the customer is not always right, since what the customer is buying is the seller’s superior knowledge.  

Existing programs, in contrast, would be kept or cut according to bureaucratic fiat. Rose-Brady would have the Illinois Board of Higher Education evaluate campuses according to their “economic efficiency” – ominous words – and rank their academic programs. The exercise supposedly would ensure that good public money is not spent on mediocre programs by compelling each campus to focus on what it’s “good at.” That path is lined with snares and traps, not least because evaluating such matters is not what the IBHE is good at, it being set up to analyze budgets. For example, what does “good” mean? Popular? Well-taught? Intellectually rigorous?

Republicans tend to look at Illinois’ public higher ed institutions as if each were a car company with an ailing product line. The company needs to consolidate factories, cut back on the number of models offered, inject more customer preference research into design and streamline the showroom experience. Rose has complained that state universities waste millions trying to win market share by offering the same study programs as their rivals down the road. But car buyers buy different SUVs because no one SUV matches all their needs.

Rose has griped that University of Illinois Springfield wants to spend millions to build a new STEM building in Springfield when engineering programs at the Urbana campus are short of funds. (That engineering at Urbana might be overbuilt is not apparently considered.) Former IT reporter Dusty Rhodes, now at Illinois Public Radio, helpfully explains that UIS needs a new building because computer science is the largest major (1,300 students) on campus, applications having quintupled in the past 10 years.

Clearly there is demand for instruction in STEM fields outside Urbana, and UIS wants to increase its supply to satisfy it. It’s a reminder that Illinois public colleges do not serve one market but several regional ones. Well-off kids choose based on amenities but poor kids choose based on price and proximity. That inescapably leads to some duplication of offerings and facilities.

Not content to regulate supply, our improvers also wish to artificially boost demand. Chapin hopes to get kids who leave high school with a B average to stay in Illinois by guaranteeing them a place in an Illinois state school. But if a B average becomes a guarantee of college acceptance, you can be sure that our high schools will make certain their C-average students graduate with B averages. Education is subject to a version of Gresham’s Law, which we will rephrase as “Bad students drive out good.” And those good students will have nowhere to go but Illinois’ private universities or public universities outside the state.

The problems of Illinois higher ed are real but they have little to do with administrative bloat. The crisis of the regional ex-normal schools is a subset of the economic and social crisis of Downstate. The crisis of students lost to other states is a crisis of funding aggravated by a crisis-mongering Republican governor. The crisis at our flagship university is not caused by the structure of governance there but by politics. When it comes to reform, Rose and Brady need to go back to school.  
 
James Krohe Jr. is author of Corn Kings & One-Horse Thieves: A Plain-Spoken History of Mid-Illinois (Southern Illinois University Press, 2017).
 
Contact James Krohe Jr. at CaptBogue@outlook.com.

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