By Thomas Vogel
Mariane Magbanua fought back tears as she described the positive effect of higher education on her life. The daughter of immigrant parents, Magbanua is a first-generation college student, working toward a bachelor’s degree in public policy at DePaul University.
“I grew up thinking I only had one path,” Magabanua said. “Higher education is supposed to be the great equalizer.”
Magabanua’s remarks came as dozens of students and faculty gathered Tuesday at DePaul for a roundtable discussion on the status of higher education in Illinois, where funding for public universities is in limbo because the state is in its eight month without a budget.
As college affordability and universal access dominated the discussion, a few panelists, including State. Rep Will Guzzardi (38th) called for the public to embrace the idea that a college education is a fundamental American right, similar to public K-12 education.
Hosted by the Roosevelt Institute, a New York-based think tank, the event came just days after college students from across the state, including DePaul, organized rallies in both Springfield and Chicago demanding restoration of the Monetary Award Program, a need-based college grants program for low-income students. As the Legislature continually refuses to pass a workable budget that pays for education, mental health and a variety of other core services, students often feel the pain acutely.
In 2014, MAP grants helped around 136,000 students. In 2015, however, that number decreased to about 128,000 because of across-the-board budget cuts, according to Lynne Baker, managing director of communications at the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, a state agency tasked with ensuring college affordability.
“Higher education provides young people with a toolkit to stay competitive,” said Doug Ortiz, a DePaul student and panelist. “It’s the key to the middle-class.”
In fact, the jobless rate for workers with a bachelor’s degree is significantly lower than someone with just a high school diploma, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Median weekly earnings also rise with education level, although bumps in pay decrease with more advanced degrees, like doctorates.
Guzzardi acknowledged the turbulent situation in the state capital but cautioned there is not much he can do unilaterally to fix the state’s higher education system.
“It’s been very difficult,” said Guzzardi, who took office in 2015 representing the Northwest Side. “I haven’t seen a successful passage of a budget as a state rep.”
Guzzardi lamented what he believes to be a transition away from government investment in public goods, like education and infrastructure and juxtaposed the MAP rallies with the recently announced $50 million private scholarship fund given to the University of Chicago by a local couple.
“Instead of public MAP grants, we have private scholarships at private universities,” Guzzardi said. “The services we need are getting cut.”
Eve Rips, Midwest director of Young Invincibles, echoed Guzzardi’s frustration and said higher education funding is often “high on the chopping block” when legislators are trimming budgets. However, recent well-attended rallies are reasons for optimism.
“This year is our breaking point,” Rips said. “It’s good to see the anger coming out. It’s good to see students across the state engaging in the civic process.”
All the panelists acknowledged there is no easy fix to the state’s budget and higher education problems, as Springfield remains bitterly divided by partisan loyalties.
However, the panel suggested several practical, short-term solutions.
A greater emphasis on data-driven analysis, in everything from college choice to graduation rates, was repeatedly mentioned. Several panelists also said increased dialogue between between faculty and students, and more collaboration on smaller issues, like textbook affordability, would be productive, too.
Warkaa Abdulhessein, who is studying at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a first- generation college student, agreed and stressed the importance of education, particularly for women and minority groups.
“I use my education as a sword to break the cycle of social and economic oppression.” Abdulhesssein said. “College access shouldn’t be a political issue.”