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In a recent broadcast of All Things Considered on National Public Radio, three states were identified as having serious budgeting problems. Illinois was singled out in that story as the state whose “money vault” was empty. The reporter noted that Illinois literally didn’t have the money to meet its obligations.

More than 40 years ago, the state contemplated the importance of the community college and suggested a collaboration among the state, local citizens and students to advance education and training. One third of the cost would be covered by state funding, one third by local property taxes and the last third by the students. This plan allowed all constituents to “have some skin in the game,” but provided more reasonable pricing for students who wanted to gain a college education, particularly in technical and career areas.

Since 1967, when funding was allocated roughly in thirds, the state has continued to decrease the funding levels for community colleges. Take a look at today’s revenue streams. In Fiscal Year 2008, students contributed roughly their third. Property taxes continued to contribute to one third of the operating revenues. But the state-promised apportionment has been reduced to only 17 to 19 percent of the operating revenues. The state continues to back away from its commitment to community colleges. Frankly, given the effectiveness and contributions of community colleges to the state economy, this reluctance is hard to understand.

In Illinois, community colleges enroll 60 percent of all undergraduate students in the state, but receive only eight percent of all funding for higher education, down from 10 percent in previous years. Ninety percent of community college graduates, according to the Illinois Community College Board, stay in Illinois to live and work. The American Association of Community Colleges notes that 59 percent of all new nurses and “a majority of other health care workers” are educated at community colleges and almost 80 percent of public servants—firefighters, police and EMTs—receive their credentials from community colleges.

Community colleges in Illinois enroll the largest percentage of low income students and minority and underrepresented groups, and provide retraining for thousands of workers each year. Two-thirds of all minorities in college in Illinois, 11,000 students with disabilities and 38,000 students with limited skills in the English language are currently served by the Illinois Community College System. Community college graduates, on average, earn about $400,000 more over a lifetime than high school graduates. Illinois community colleges have a huge impact on reducing poverty, increasing job skills and providing skilled workers for local employers.

Yet funding for this system of important economic development continues to erode at the state level. We continue to try to compete in a global economy, attract business and industry to our Midwestern state, battle the forces of poverty, and emerge from the trials of a slipping economy. As we do these things and see what community colleges do, have done and will continue to do, we wonder why our state continues to decline in its investment in a system that keeps citizens in Illinois, provides a high percentage of health care and public safety workers, and gives hope and help to those who need it most. With a record like that, why wouldn’t the state want to keep up its side of the bargain? IBI

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