Blaisdell: Prioritize higher education funding this midterm election

Haku Blaisdell, Op-Ed Contributor

It’s hard to talk about college without mentioning the elephant in the room — paying for tuition.

I’m a full-time student whose education depends on financial aid and the wages from my part-time job. Frankly, I’m one of the lucky ones — many must work full-time jobs, while others are forced to put their education on hold entirely. About 40 percent of undergraduates work over 30 hours a week, while 25 percent of students enrolled in college full-time simultaneously work full-time jobs. Additionally, in a survey of 1,000 college dropouts, financial troubles were the top challenge that led people to drop out.

Sadly, Illinois’ higher education system has long suffered from neglect, exacerbating these problems. Most recently, Illinois’ two-year budget impasse left universities without a single dollar of state funding for nearly 10 months. This unacceptable disinvestment from the state’s higher education system led tuition to rise by an average of $900 per year, forced colleges to lay off approximately 2,300 postsecondary educators and reduced public university and college enrollment by more than 72,000 students. Our universities and their students are still recovering from these massive blows they took back in 2015-2017.

At the same time, funding for Illinois’ need-based Monetary Award Program (MAP) has drastically decreased. Once covering 100 percent of the costs of public schools for those who qualified, MAP now only covers 46 percent of community college and 32 percent of public four-year university costs today. As a result, 160,000 eligible applicants were left to combat rising tuition on their own in 2015.

Given our higher education situation, it’s no surprise that students are fed up. Illinois is the second highest exporter of students to out-of-state schools. Millennials in general are leaving: more students and young adults have left Illinois than any other state from 2011-2014, and they’re taking their talents, tax dollars and potential with them. It’s absolutely absurd that our tuition is so high and our assistance programs are so lacking that young Illinoisans must leave their homes in pursuit of a degree or job.

Politicians are finally beginning to see the dangers of this brain drain and its harmful effects on Illinois’ economic competitiveness. Consequently, education has become a top priority for candidates in this election cycle. Browse through the pages of state candidates in both the Senate and House, and you’ll see that education permeates issue platforms across party lines.

Illinois has several candidates calling for increased funding for higher education institutions, and a few others are even advocating for free college for all — it’s music to my ears. Higher education is more critical than ever, as 65 percent of jobs will require some type of postsecondary training by 2020. Young adults today need a college degree to earn what our parents’ generation earned without one. With degrees becoming more and more crucial, we need to make sure that they remain accessible and affordable, otherwise we risk putting our state’s economy at risk.

Our legislators hold our futures in our hands, and we must hold them accountable. We must vote. Millennials are 31 percent of the voting age eligible population, nearly the same proportion as baby boomers. Our voices matter, and there’s no better time to make them heard. This is an important election, as one in every five Illinois legislators sworn into office in 2019 will be completely new to the Illinois General Assembly. However, midterm elections historically have an abhorrent voter turnout rate, particularly with young voters — in 2014, only 19.9 percent of adults ages 18 to 29 voted.

On November 6, I urge you to vote for those that will prioritize our higher education and protect our avenues for success. Then, after Tuesday, I urge you to hold them accountable for their promises. We must make sure that their work reflects our need for accessible and affordable higher education.

Haku Blaisdell is a SESP sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.