Sen. Durbin on higher education

Budget impasse caused 'decline in confidence' in state's college towns

By Ted Cox

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin blames the state's long budget impasse for the way Illinois college towns have suffered in recent years.

"It's terrible," Durbin said in a recent interview with One Illinois founder Ameya Pawar, a Chicago alderman. "I've been to Carbondale," home to the original campus of Southern Illinois University. "They have on average about 50 homes for sale at any given time. Now they have 250, and the reason is this absolute decline in confidence about the future of the university brought on by the budget crisis.

"Enrollment went down, faculty members left, administrators were fired, and they're wondering what's tomorrow going to be like?" Durbin said. "Then I went to Macomb, and it's the same story with Western Illinois University, and they're struggling to wonder what the future's going to be."

Durbin credited Republican Mayor Mike Henry with helping to stabilize Carbondale. And it's also helped that the state increased funding for higher education in the recently passed budget — the first signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner in his tenure. Former SIU President Randy Dunn tried to rally support for college towns by touting them as "job creators," but he was recently removed from office and instead is teaching at SIU's Edwardsville campus after emails released in a Freedom of Information Act search turned up his behind-the-scenes efforts to shift $5 million in funding from Carbondale to Edwardsville. The SIU System is still trying to recover from the turmoil.

 Sen. Durbin credited Mayor Mike Henry with helping to stop the bleeding in Carbondale. (One Illinois/Zachary Sigelko)

Sen. Durbin credited Mayor Mike Henry with helping to stop the bleeding in Carbondale. (One Illinois/Zachary Sigelko)

Durbin blamed the budget impasse for causing the decline in confidence in college towns, saying, "What the budget crisis did was just really strike some fear in their hearts about whether they could survive this thing. That's not only hurting the universities, it's hurting the towns where these universities are located. They're the major drivers, if not of the economy, of the spirit of that community."

The Illinois Economic Policy Institute documented the damage done in a study released late last year, "High-Impact Higher Education."

Durbin cited the so-called brain drain brought on by the budget's effect on state universities, as well as college students lost to rival states that are recruiting Illinoisans. "We wonder why we lose so many high-school grads who go off to other places," Durbin said. "Part of it is because we stopped investing in our universities."

The video is the latest in a series drawn from an extended interview between Durbin and Pawar, with more to follow.