The High Costs of Provincialism

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where I teach, the golf pencils
used in student evaluations of faculty at
semester‘s end have to be signed out
and dutifully returned to staff. Obsessive
re-collecting of the tiny pencils
always gets a laugh from students, who
know that it symbolizes the absurd hand-to-mouth existence
of a flagship state university. The few dozens of
“lost-pencil” dollars possibly saved cannot possibly
equal the amount of labor spent in bureaucratizing the
process, but within the logic of chronic shortfalls the
policy makes perfect sense.
The false economy of golf pencils gets written in larger
ways at the University of Illinois, especially as a real economic
crisis follows years of systematic underfunding during
the relatively good times. And yet, with all of the panic
going around, the most obvious source of new revenue—
increasing numbers of out-of-state students—seemingly
remains fully off the table.
In 2006, when Chancellor Richard Herman proposed
a modest increase in such students, he did so for very
good educational reasons: more diversity of experiences
and more excellence. When legislators balked, the retreat
of the administration was sad and total, but Herman‘s
initial arguments were not wrong. The educational costs
of running perhaps the most provincial major state university
in the nation are high and, as it turns out, so are
the financial ones.
To say as much is of course not to say that students
individually are narrow. Illinois is a very cosmopolitan
state and some of the University‘s students fully reflect
this. However, to bow to political pressure against admitting
out-of-state students and to fail to break through
towards greater class and race diversity of in-state students
has left the university homogenous in many ways.
Such factors also lead to the campus being more abandoned
on weekends than any peer institution with which
I am familiar.
Indeed in comparison to most of its peer institutions,
the most astonishing fact of life at Illinois is the provincialism—
the extreme and limiting inward-looking logic–of its
undergraduate student enrollment policy. According to
current statistics provided to Princeton Review‘s online college
guide, out-of-state U.S. students make up 7% of Illinois
undergraduates. This proportion is less than a fifth of
Iowa‘s and Purdue‘s undergraduate student bodies. It is
between a quarter and a fifth of Michigan‘s, Indiana‘s,
Penn State‘s, and Minnesota‘s. No matter how cosmopolitan,
or not, the image of the state and school involved, all
far outdistance Illinois.
Since some states cooperate to grant each other‘s residents
reciprocal in-state tuition, and since in- and out-ofstate
tuition vary from place to place, calculating the dollars
sacrificed to provincialism is complex. But a comparison
with University of Michigan gives us some sense of
the hit taken by the University of Illinois in order to
defend a status quo it has at times rightly regarded as educationally
Again from Princeton Review figures, Michigan has
about 9000 out-of-state students among its 26,000
undergraduates. Illinois has just under 2200 out-of-state
undergraduates from a total of 31,000. Since the gap
between in- and out-of-state tuition at Michigan is about
$20,000 per student per year, the out-of-state students
potentially add about $180 million to revenues. At Illinois,
the tuition difference is about $14,000 per year
between in- and out-of-state students. Thus those U.S.
students currently coming from beyond Illinois add
potentially a paltry $31 million.
Although complications abound—some out-of-state
students get financial aid for example—the huge gap in
out-of-state revenues goes a long way to explaining the
mystery of why, in a devastated state, University of Michigan
has been able to maintain a consistently higher ranking
than Illinois. It benefits from the cosmopolitanism
those out-of-state students bring and from their dollars.
Put positively, if Illinois were to double its proportion
of out-of-state students, it would add a further $31 million
annually to its budget. If it reached something like the proportions
at peer institutions mentioned above, it would
add about $125 million per year. It would take lots of hiring
freezes and Global Campus dreaming to reach anything
like such amounts.
It pains me, as someone believing in education as a
right and therefore against tuition altogether, to write
this piece. It goes without saying that revenue thus produced
ought to be used in significant measure to make
the university affordable to poor and working class students
and to stop the patterns that have led to a doubling
of in-state tuition over the past decade. A $30 million
increase in revenue, for example, could immediately
be used to renew hiring. It could recreate spaces for
nearly the numbers of in-state student slot lost in the
increasing of out-state students, while maintaining existing
faculty-student ratios. Such slots, and increased revenue,
should be used to diversify the faculty and the instate
student body.
However, if we continue to bow to the fiction that
provincial admission policies somehow make the campus
more accessible to “Illinoisians,” rather than to a very
selective slice of Illinoisians, we will not get to begin
these debates. Moreover, we will be trapped in talk of crisis,
of inevitable scarcity, and of vague talk about bold,
creative solutions while too little creativity and boldness
are on offer.

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