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Three new Illinois laws aim to improve equity in higher education

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Staff
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WGLT file
At Illinois State University in Normal, the Campus Climate Task Force was formed in 2016 and has been collecting data and assessing both perceptions and outcomes of the university’s diverse student population.

Gov. JB Pritzker recently signed three bills into law designed to close equity gaps and expand access to higher education for underrepresented students.

One of them was House Bill 5464, which requires state public universities and community colleges to develop and implement equity plans and practices. The Illinois Board of Higher Education sponsored the measure.

“As part of the state's new strategic plan for Higher Education, we were focused on what it's going to take to close the equity gaps that we see in the state,” said IBHE executive director Ginger Ostro. “Equity plans were one of those key strategies to help each institution identify the policies and practices that it has on its campus that may create barriers, and to identify those and address them so that we can close equity gaps.”

Ginger Ostro
IBHE executive director Ginger Ostro.

The equity plans and practices will be unique to each public university and community college, and shaped by each institution’s own data based on where they identify gaps in equity, said Ostro.

“Each institution will really look at its own data, evaluating its own practices, and identify the root causes of these gaps, and what the barriers are. Then change the practices, change the policies and remove any barriers so that they can close the gaps,” said Ostro. “It's important that it's individual to each campus, because the challenges that students face are different on each campus. So it will be each institution evaluating its own specific circumstances.”

The IBHE will work in collaboration with the Illinois Community College Board to design equity plans based on each institution’s individual data, and then help institutions guide the implementation of the new plans and practices.

“It’s grounded in data, and we just see significant gaps in the rate at which institutions enroll and graduate African Americans compared to white students and Latinx students compared to white students,” said Ostro. “We also see significant gaps when we look at it from an income lens between the rate at which institutions enroll and complete low-income students compared to non-low-income students.”

According to Ostro, some higher education institutions in the state already have equity plans in place.

“We're very fortunate to be building on work that was launched several years ago by a nonprofit organization in Chicago that has been leading work,” said Ostro. “About 20 institutions, public and private universities, and community colleges have already developed equity plans.”

ISU impact

At Illinois State University in Normal, the Campus Climate Task Force was formed in 2016 and has been collecting data and assessing both perceptions and outcomes of the university’s diverse student population. The task force has established four objectives, as well as plans to meet these objectives, which they have been tracking progress of over the past five years.

The objectives are to create an inclusive classroom and campus environment, recruiting and retaining diverse faculty and staff, creating affirming spaces for diverse students, as well as closing student retention, persistence and graduation gaps.

ISU’s interim assistant to the president for diversity and inclusion, Dr. Doris Houston, says the objectives created by the Campus Climate Task Force should satisfy the equity plan requirements created under the new law.

Along with House Bill 5464, there were two other bills signed into law with similar goals of increasing equity in higher education. Senate Bill 3991 amends the Illinois Higher Education Savings Program, allowing the State Treasurer to increase the college savings deposit amount to the Treasurer’s 529 fund for children in financially insecure households.

House Bill 4201 will require state universities and community colleges to assign “benefits navigators” for the purpose of guiding students to seek and apply for any federal, state, or local program that provides assistance or benefits for which they are eligible.

“We really see and believe that it's important for Illinois economy to thrive, that we have educational equity,” said Ostro. We just believe that educational equity and Illinois economic growth are inseparable, and that's why this work is so important.”

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Zach is a reporting intern at WGLT. He joined the station in 2022.
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