Higher Ed Gets A Bipartisan Push

By Dusty Rhodes

State Senator Chapin Rose had what he thought was a no-brainer bill. All he wanted to do was help public universities connect with promising high school juniors by sharing basic data like standardized test scores. But just hours before presenting his bill in committee, he ran into FERPA — the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

It’s a federal law; there’s no easy way around it.

So after a short, intense debate, the committee chair moved on. But as soon as the meeting ended, Rose continued to quiz a state agency official about FERPA.

Rose is a Republican from Mahomet. But State Senator Pat McGuire, a Democrat from Crest Hill, joined the discussion. They summoned their respective staffers and gave them five hours to craft a new amendment to save the bill.

What they ended up with was a punt — the amendment calls for the creation of a task force. But that’s almost beside the point.

The point is: it’s not every day you see this kind of all-hands-on-deck bipartisan effort in the capitol of Illinois.

Here’s the issue that brought them together:

“Illinois has actually been the largest net exporter of students since the 1970s,” Rose says.

What that means is: Illinois has been losing more students than virtually any state in the nation for about as long as Rose has been alive. The two-year budget impasse that starved universities of state funding only made it worse.Last fall, McGuire decided to tackle the problem by forming a bicameral, bipartisan working group. They initially met with the three state higher education boards, then, over the next three meetings, McGuire called in officials from each public university campus.

And frankly, when we tendered that invitation to the public universities, we told them don’t send your chancellor or president,” he says. “Send your dean of enrollment or management because we, to each of those 12 campuses, posed this question: What are you doing to attract, retain and graduate Illinois students?”

Some answers, McGuire says, were surprising.

“Elaine Maimon, the president of Governors State University, said, ‘Our biggest competitor is nowhere.’ We heard the same thing that day from Northeastern Illinois University and Northern Illinois University,” McGuire says. “And there was bipartisan jaw-dropping.”

The schools had data that showed they had provided admissions offers to high school graduates in Illinois, but many of those students never enrolled — at these colleges, or anywhere else. Dubbed “summer melt,” it’s likely many of those decisions were due to lack of financial resources.

And then there’s the vast number of students who opt for out-of-state schools (many choose University of Alabama). The working group is trying to attack both issues.

The group has had almost 20 meetings, calling in experts like Joni Finney at University of Pennsylvania and Dick Wagner, former director of Illinois Board of Higher Education.

McGuire admits his working group was inspired by Gov. Bruce Rauner’s school funding commission, which last year succeeded in overhauling Illinois’ inequitable funding formula. There are some differences. This working group is smaller, with just three members of each caucus instead of five, and no members appointed by the Governor’s office (the school funding commission had five, including then-education-czar Beth Purvis, who directed the commission’s meetings). Another difference is that this working group meets privately, while the school funding commission allowed stakeholders and reporters to attend.

(Early on, at my request, McGuire asked his working group if media could attend, but members chose to meet privately so that they could ask questions and present ideas that were “rough hewn.”)

But another difference is that the K-12 school funding commission adjourned without producing an agreed bil. This working group, on the other hand, has produced a handful of plans, all of which are rolling out with bipartisan support.So far, they’ve filed a handful of bills.

One would ensure course credits transfer; another would help universities pay for deferred maintenance. Another one would create a new merit-based program called AIM HIGH (Aspirational Institutional Match Helping Illinois Grow Higher) that would offer $25 million in state funds to match institutional scholarships.

Rose is excited about a bill that would allow low-income students who receive MAP grants to renew them routinely.

“The four-year MAP thing is, in my opinion, going to be a hallmark of this,” Rose says, “because that’s what directly evens the playing field for our admissions departments with not just out of state but also our in-state privates, frankly.”

The group also has long-term goals, such as consolidating various oversight boards into one entity.

None of their proposals has become law yet, but McGuire says the group is already the best experience he’s had in his six years at the statehouse. He sees it as a continuation of the collaborative mindset that last year broke the budget impasse.

“I said this after we got a budget — that I sensed that the fact that the budget impasse ended as a result of bipartisan cooperation, portended bipartisan cooperation on other problems,” McGuire says. “And I think our higher ed working group is proof of that.”

Of course, passing a state budget is crucial to recruiting and retaining college students. Rose happens to serve not only on this working group but also as a budget negotiator. After yesterday’s press conference, he said negotiations for the past three weeks have shown “much less rancorous, much less partisanship, much more cooperation.” He said a plan has been handed up to legislative leaders, and “now it’s just time for them to land the plane.”

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