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In a recent broadcast on Illinois Public Radio, former U.S. Senator Paul Simon cautioned the country about its current cuts to higher education. Simon noted that in 1949, 9 percent of the federal budget was designated for higher education. Today that number is 2 percent. And in 1949, the senator noted, 75 percent of the federal monies were allocated to grants and 25 percent to student loans.

Now those numbers are reversed. Simon warned the current trends toward cutting funds for higher education may resolve short-term budget woes, but will cost the country production capacity in the long run.

Today, no one would argue that we live in the information age. Unlike the agrarian and industrial eras, the information age requires strong critical thinking skills and technological understanding. Both of these are abilities higher education develops.

Parade Magazine, in a February 25, 2001, article, reported that "occupations generally requiring an associate’s degree are projected to grow 31 percent-faster than all other jobs requiring other degrees or training over the 1998-2008 period." But the need for associate degrees is only part of the story. Areas wanting to attract venture capital, entrepreneurs, or technology-based businesses need to have a skilled workforce. That means communities need to educate their citizens beyond high school and find ways to keep this intellectual capital close to home. How does our tri-county area compare to others in attracting and retaining college-educated citizens? The short answer is: We can do better.

Of the citizens in Illinois aged 25 and older (2000 census data), 6.1 percent hold associate degrees, 16.5 percent hold bachelor’s degrees, 6.5 percent hold master’s degrees, and 0.9 percent have doctorates. The tri-county area population holds a higher percentage of associate degrees than the state: Peoria County-7.1 percent; Tazewell County-7.1 percent; Woodford County-8.1 percent. That’s a positive trend for our area and good for filling occupations requiring these degrees.

However, the tri-county doesn’t fare as well with other degrees. While 16.5 percent of the state population holds a bachelor’s degree, 15.2 percent in Peoria County, 12.5 percent in Tazewell County, and 15.2 percent in Woodford County have achieved this level of education. The same is true for master’s and doctoral degrees. Approximately 6.5 percent of the state’s population holds master’s degrees, while only 5.2 percent in Peoria County, 4 percent in Tazewell County, and 4.3 percent in Woodford County have earned this degree.

Of the state’s population, 0.9 percent hold doctorates (the national average is 1 percent). The percentage with doctorates is 0.9 percent, 0.4 percent, and 0.6 percent for Peoria, Tazewell, and Woodford counties respectively. Counties like Champaign, DuPage, Cook, Lake, McLean, Sangamon, and Will all have higher percentages of their populations holding either bachelor, master’s, or doctoral degrees.

While central Illinois provides a number of nearby opportunities for citizens to earn college degrees, the current trend toward reducing college funding will limit our area’s ability to develop the intellectual capacity we need to be a growing, prospering community.

ICC provides an affordable means for our population to earn an associate degree or begin a bachelor’s. About one-third of ICC’s students will ultimately seek bachelor’s degrees. Higher education institutions like Bradley University, Eureka College, the University of Illinois-Springfield, Illinois State University, Illinois Wesleyan University, and Knox College-and online options like Franklin University-provide undergraduate and graduate degrees for interested students. But students need to have the wherewithal to attend.

What does all this mean for our own community? We need to send three very clear messages. One should be to our federal and state representatives to exercise caution and restraint in continually cutting higher education funds. The second is to citizens and businesses in our area. More than ever, we need to help support the scholarships and grants necessary to make sure talented students with limited means pursue a college education. But the most important message we can send today is to those who have even the slightest desire to seek a college degree.

That message must be clear: Go to college-the future of your community and your country depend on it. IBI

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