College students keep getting kicked around. But in at least one case, they punched back.
Student debt in the U.S. now exceeds $1.3 trillion. College costs annually spike. Politicians actively belittle those pursuing a degree in history. And the states, including Iowa and Illinois, continually pull out of an educational system that, not too long ago, was considered society's great equalizer.
Illinois' budget woes have reached historic levels. It's been 611 days since the Land of Lincoln last had a budget. Few who rely on social services have been unaffected by the utter negligence in Springfield. But it's students, particularly from low-income and middle-class homes, who continually get kicked in the gut.
For many, Illinois' Monetary Award Program, or MAP, is the difference between a four-year education and a check-out counter. But thanks to the budget standoff, the program finds itself without funding every few months. It's the schools, both public and private, that are picking up the tab for cash that, by law, Illinois promised to pay.
The best hope in Illinois, a so-called Grand Bargain in the Senate, stalled yet again on Wednesday.
It has cost private Augustana College in Rock Island more than $3 million, says school President Steve Bahls. The result is a campuswide slowdown on capital projects that would have otherwise modernized facilities. Bahls has three years to refund the money spent paying Illinois' debts, under the college board's edict. At some point, even well-funded private schools, such as Augustana, can't sustain itself under these conditions.
Seventeen faculty and staff last month were given the ax at Black Hawk College, a public community college in Moline. The cuts predictably hit the two-year school's arts programs the hardest. The arts — unfortunately — are too often seen as expendable luxuries in a world that values net profit over all else. Yet, again, the roots of the problem can be found in the state's inability to provide consistent funding and political stability.
Black Hawk's enrollment is down, yet tuition is up. Augustana is seeing increased competition from schools in nearby states, with recruiters well aware that the uncertainty in Illinois' offers prime ground for poaching. Add to that the regular notices of late MAP payments, and it's no wonder college students from Illinois are looking elsewhere.
The student bodies may be different at Blackhawk and Augustana, but the results are the same. The resulting brain drain will cost the state — socially and fiscally — for decades.
All's not rosy on the Iowa side of the Mississippi River, either. Lawmakers slashed University of Iowa's funding by $8 million, part of a total $18 million in cuts to schools within Iowa Regents, in order to make up for the predictible result of years-worth of tax cuts. University administrators responded by notifying more than 3,000 students that financial scholarships wouldn't be forthcoming. But university brass learned the hard way: Politicizing students to make a point can come back to bite you. And the Legislature is more interested in mulling bills that stomp on students' protected right to protest than actually supporting higher education.
Students started looking elsewhere. Parents raged, many of whom are Iowa grads., and some filed lawsuits. The school did an about-face on Wednesday. But the Legislature's $8 million hole remains. It'll come from somewhere.
Iowa's college students could flex their collective muscles when their Illinois peers couldn't. The problems in Illinois run far deeper and so does the stink from its brand of political patronage. But both instances highlight a growing attack on higher education that's hammering welding students and English literature majors alike.
There's nothing revolutionary by stating Illinois needs a budget. That opinion is universally held. But what's also true is, at some point, Black Hawk College, Augustana and Western Illinois University will be unable to plug the holes. In Iowa, the Legislature's slow bleed of regents schools will ultimately weaken programs and drive up costs.
Higher education is no luxury. It's a foundation for a stable, functioning republic. But you wouldn't know it after watching Iowa and Illinois operate.