Efforts to enhance higher-education offerings in the Quad Cities got a boost last week with a new study identifying a need for more public-tuition-rate undergraduate programs and suggesting the expansions of two local educational institutions. But it remains to be seen whether its recommendations are practical in the short term given the budget cuts most colleges and universities are being forced to implement.

On Thursday, April 17, Florida's MGT of America presented the executive summary of a needs assessment commissioned by the Illinois Quad City Chamber of Commerce. The study makes two key recommendations: that Western Illinois University expand its Quad Cities presence to a branch campus, and that the multi-university Quad-Cities Graduate Study Center (better known as the GradCenter) add selected bachelor-degree programs, for example in engineering and health professions.

Other fields considered to have "moderate to high demand" for bachelor-degree programs, according to the study, are agriculture sciences, architecture, business, communications, information sciences, education, general studies, manufacturing, and nursing.

Western presently offers undergraduate programs in two colleges, Business & Technology and Education & Human Services, while the GradCenter, obviously, only has graduate programs.

The goal would be to provide junior- and senior-level coursework and therefore fill a gap between the community-college level and graduate programs. While the Quad Cities have St. Ambrose University and Augustana College as private undergraduate schools, people who want to complete bachelor degrees after community college have no relatively low-cost option in the Quad Cities - something at the same level as tuition for public institutions, if one doesn't consider financial aid.

The study is broad-based, but it was driven by business interests. In an October press release announcing the study, Illinois Quad City Chamber noted, "This initiative began as a result of a recent survey of the Illinois Quad City Chamber of Commerce that indicated 67 percent of those members responding found education and its positive relationship to higher education to be a top priority for economic growth and quality of life."

Some higher-education stakeholders are concerned that the study's findings were a foregone conclusion, because the Illinois Quad City Chamber has long said it would like to see a four-year public institution in the Quad Cities. "I just have trouble seeing the objectivity of the report," said James Loftus, St. Ambrose University vice president of enrollment and student services.

"The Pipeline Is Interrupted"

The study was paid for with a $30,000 grant from the Illinois Board of Higher Education and local matching grants, and included an analysis of current higher-education offerings, as well as data and trends from census information. It also included interviews with community leaders and surveys of different groups, such as employers, college students, and prospective college students.

At press time, the full report was not available, but the executive summary reinforces what many people have long suspected: that young people - or workers - might leave the Quad Cities to have their educational needs met.

"The pipeline is interrupted there," said MGT's Cynthia P. Balogh.

Interviews with community and business leaders fleshed out that point. "Despite availability of high-quality programs at private institutions, many community leaders expressed that the lack of a four-year institution offering programs at public-tuition rates limited access to baccalaureate education for many community members," the study's executive summary states. "Interviewees expressed that it is important that the cost for higher education beyond the two-year degree is not a barrier."

Loftus disagreed with the implication that the area's private schools are not affordable and don't meet the educational needs of the area. A wide variety of financial aid is available for students at St. Ambrose, he said, and the school does have program areas in many of the fields for which the study found a need. "The market is well-served by its existing institutions," he said.

Furthermore, Loftus said the study's recommendations don't include enough cooperation among higher-education institutions. "The notion of collaboration is clearly not involved in the executive summary," he said.

The study also included a survey of high-school students. Course and program selection, proximity to home, and cost were three of the four primary factors in students' decisions where to attend college, and more than half of all prospective students said they were "extremely or somewhat interested in pursuing educational opportunities in the Quad Cities area," according to the executive summary. It also stated that "more than half of all prospective students stated that they were not very likely or not at all likely to obtain their highest degree in the Quad Cities area. A primary reason for this decision included the unavailability of their program of choice."

Interviews with higher-education leaders found that the "needs of the community are well met with the following exceptions: The community needs a stronger sense of a four-year public institution; the community needs additional opportunities to complete the junior and senior years of a bachelor's degree at a public, four-year institution; the community needs access to a broader array of upper-level and graduate-degree programs."

Ready and Willing

There is little doubt that Western Illinois University has an interest in expansion. The study will clearly provide it with some valuable information as it seeks funding from the state.

The school had previously approached the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE) about expanding its Quad Cities presence, but to this point what was missing was a demonstration that such a move is warranted.

Rick Baker, president and CEO of the Illinois Quad City Chamber of Commerce, said a study designed to produce the findings that his organization and Western Illinois University wanted wouldn't do the institution any good before the IBHE. "They don't need doctored-up information," he said.

"This study will bolster future efforts to tap the state budget," said Kirby Winn, director of public relations for Augustana College. (A spokesperson for Western did not return two phone messages left this week.)

As for the GradCenter, its response to the study's recommendations will be harder to guess. GradCenter Director Charles Laws said his organization's 12 member institutions will be discussing the issue at its next board meeting, in June. He said that the GradCenter, which currently offers 70 graduate-degree programs, has never considered adding undergraduate coursework.

He also noted that budget cuts facing most of the institutions could limit any willingness to expand. "That will have an impact on how we respond," he said.

"That's a very legitimate concern," Balogh said. She added that before putting money into new programs, state government will likely demand some local investment. "The state is not going to fund this. ... They're going to need to see local support ... up-front."

Nonetheless, she added, the grim state-finances picture should not be an excuse to not move forward. "We should not limit our planning," she said. "This [economic downturn] will not last forever."

Questions

The study raises a lot of questions, including what the role of the business community should be in the development of higher education.

"We as a community wanted to have more of a leadership role" instead of just letting the educational institutions figure out how they might address higher-education gaps, Baker said. "Now the information is available to all."

The Illinois Quad City Chamber has a long-standing interest in expanding higher education in the Quad Cities. Yet Baker said the study's findings were not a foregone conclusion. "We were very hands-off in this process," he said. "We really did want an honest interpretation that there's a need."

Another question raised by the study is why its recommendations think "smaller" - utilizing Western Illinois University and the GradCenter instead of suggesting a larger project involving the bi-state flagship institutions, the University of Iowa and the University of Illinois. Baker said that wasn't part of the charge to MGT. "We didn't limit them to telling us what was easiest," he said.

"I think there's a need now," Balogh said. "To take the time to grow another institution would take years." She said that the study looks at higher-education needs over the next five to 10 years, and that something needs to happen quickly to meet those needs.

In addition, she said, nothing has stopped the two "U of I"s from coming to the Quad Cities. "Western has made a strong commitment," she said. "You don't have to beg them."

And existing institutions could be negatively impacted by the addition of a lower-cost undergraduate option in the Quad Cities. When asked whether Augustana and St. Ambrose were concerned about how the study might come out, Baker responded with one word: "Yes." He added that St. Ambrose was more concerned than Augustana.

Augustana does expect that more higher-education options could add competition. "In 2001, about 7 percent of incoming freshman were from Rock Island County, and almost 4 percent were from Scott County," Winn wrote in an e-mail. "These are the students Augustana would be most concerned about 'losing' to an expanded WIU presence in the Quad Cities."

The impact could be much larger on St. Ambrose. One-third of its traditional-age college students come from the Quad Cities area, as well as 90 percent of commuters and about 70 percent of graduate students, Loftus said. "I'm concerned about the recommendations," he said.

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