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Illinois Higher Education Floundering, Government Corruption Part Of The Problem: Study

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In this photo taken Feb. 2, 2011, a student walks to a job fair on the University of Illinois campus in Urbana, Ill. | AP

A study released last month by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education shows declining interest in higher education among Illinois students -- and says government corruption is at least partially to blame.

The study, titled “A Story of Decline: Performance and Policy in Illinois Higher Education,” says that in the past decade, Illinois went from being a leader in higher education to falling behind in college preparation, participation and affordability, and says the state has made "no progress toward ameliorating a persistent pattern of inequity in higher education."

“I think for whatever combination of reasons higher education slipped off the agenda of state government,” Stanley Ikenberry, the former president of the University of Illinois, told the Chicago Sun-Times. “While higher education was very much on the agenda for Jim Thompson and Jim Edgar in Illinois I don’t think higher education was on the agenda at all for George Ryan and even less for Blagojevich. If you’ve got a governor who doesn’t really care, that’s a major loss.”

The study echoed Ikenberry's sentiments, blaming "a weak and ineffective" Illinois Board of Higher Education and citing corruption in political appointments to various boards and state agencies under Blagojevich and Ryan.

This year, Gov. Pat Quinn tried putting an end to the state's controversial and often corrupt legislative scholarship program, but was blocked by powerful House Speaker Michael Madigan, who defended the awarding of tuition waivers to family members or friends of state politicians.

The consequences of this lack of attention to higher education in Illinois have been extremely damaging, the study shows:

• The state has seen declines in the percentage of high school freshmen enrolling in college within four years and the percentage of high school graduates immediately enrolling in college.

• The share of 25- to 49-year-olds enrolled in college has dropped markedly.

• Tuition has risen sharply while family incomes have fallen. At the same time, state support for needbased grants has dropped significantly.

• Blacks, Hispanics and people living in poverty are far less likely than other Illinoisans to enroll in college or, if they do enroll, to graduate within six years. Inequity in higher education is especially prominent in Chicago, which has a fifth of the state’s population and high proportions of black, Hispanic and low-income residents

Where do we go from here? Study authors Laura Perna and Joni Finney of the University of Pennsylvania say the state would need to make significant changes to see any improvement.

The state would have to drastically increase the number of people getting associates and bachelor's degrees annually, increase access to higher education for its growing Hispanic population and reduce cuts which prevent many Illinois families from being able to afford college. With the state's growing fiscal problems, this is unlikely to happen any time soon.

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