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Opinion

Our View: Too much is at stake in school funding impasse

Illinois’ ongoing budget crisis is putting a strain on our system of higher education, and it is important that our leaders in the Legislature and the governor work to end this impasse.

There is simply too much at stake.

Among those hardest hit by the lack of state funding for higher ed are those students who rely on tuition grants from the $373 million Monetary Assistance Program, or MAP. Also feeling the squeeze are institutions with a large percentage of students who rely on those grants.

Most Illinois universities and community colleges were able to cover about $187 million for unpaid Monetary Assistance Program grants in the second half of 2015. Northern Illinois University has said it will continue to temporarily cover the unpaid MAP grant funds, and so has Joliet Junior College, which serves Grundy County. But others say they can no longer afford to do so for the spring semester.

Perhaps as a result, the Wall Street Journal reported this week that about 1,000 Illinois college students had dropped out this year.

Directly as a result, leaders at Chicago State University, a public university with an enrollment of about 4,000 on Chicago’s South Side, said it would be unable to make its payroll if it does not receive funding by March. Many students at Chicago State are low-income, and the school is the first in the public university system to give a real, not-so-distant date that it could face closing its doors.

An aide to Gov. Bruce Rauner this month released a statement denouncing “cronyism” among state universities, and chiding school administrators for not making cutbacks in expenses as tuition costs have risen.

Given that NIU’s president is under investigation by the Office of the Executive Investigator General, and that the school has been found to have improperly reimbursed one consultant for travel from his home in Washington State, and the fact that large institutions are often slow to fold low-performing programs or identify and eliminate unnecessary spending, this accusation isn’t entirely off-base.

However, starving the system is not the solution. DeKalb is but one of several communities around the state whose economies rely on providing this vital service to people young and old who seek knowledge. What would Champaign, Urbana, Bloomington, Normal, Carbondale, Charleston or Macomb be without the institutions that are based there? What about the hundreds of thousands of Illinois workers who have gotten their start because of education they received?

Higher education is too important to our state’s economy, its people and its reputation to allow this standoff to continue, and the cracks in our system to continue to widen. There may have to be some reductions in spending, both on the state’s part and the universities’ part. But the time to reach those compromises has long since come. The time for rhetoric has passed. Now, agreement is needed.

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