Now that Illinois has a new governor and Chicago has elected a new mayor, the first order of business for our political leaders needs to be saving the state’s colleges and universities.
In 2017, nearly half of Illinois high school graduates left the state to study in other states. No state can afford to lose 50 percent of its youth and remain competitive in the long run. This trend of out-migration has been worsening since the Illinois budget crisis during the last administration, and now it’s a genuine statewide crisis.
When high school students choose to leave the state to go to college somewhere else, Illinois taxpayers who have paid for those high school educations are effectively subsidizing the economic growth of other states.
How important is higher education to a state’s economic success? You need only look to the recent competition over where Amazon would build its second headquarters. A city with a number of major universities was one of the key traits the company sought. Chicago was a finalist in part because of the strength of its colleges and universities.
What can we do to stop this out-migration and convince future high school graduates to stay in Illinois?
First, we need to fund the Monetary Award Program consistently. These state-funded, need-based MAP grants for tuition and fees help Illinois students fund their studies so that they are not burdened with too much debt upon graduation. Funding delays in past years have led to tens of thousands of students leaving the state.
Second, we need to come up with additional short- and long-term solutions for our state’s out-migration problem. For instance, Illinois could start an endowed college fund that would not be subject to the annual ups and downs of the state budget. If it became successful enough, this endowed fund would not only enhance MAP grants but eventually fully fund them, which would ultimately reduce the cost to the state.
I know that our state’s political leaders face many pressing problems, and it is easy to relegate higher education to the back burner. It also has become fashionable to urge our youth to bypass college and avoid taking on college debt in favor of starting a career. This “solution” occasionally works out for high school graduates, but far more often it leads to reduced earnings and career prospects for the rest of their lives.
We need educated young people to lead the state to future success in a rapidly changing world. The American Dream has been a core part of our heritage from our earliest days as a nation. If we want to keep that dream alive for future Illinois residents, we need to make sure we have vibrant colleges and universities that are within the financial reach of our own best and brightest.
Ali Malekzadeh is president of Roosevelt University.