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Q&A: ISU's new president on FAFSA delays, equitable university funding and AI policies

ISU president at a podium
Emily Bollinger
WGLT file
On WGLT's Sound Ideas, Illinois State University President Aondover Tarhule discussed his perspective on a new higher education funding model he helped develop as a member of the Illinois Commission on Equitable Public University Funding.

Illinois State University's newly-minted president says the institution is bracing for a number of current "headwinds."

Aondover Tarhule, who became ISU's 21st president last month after a year in the interim role, said in an interview that the university is grappling with ongoing delays in the student aid award process, as well as responding to the prevalence of artificial intelligence tech and a looming drop in graduating high school seniors.

ISU's governing body voted in March to make Tarhule president after he filled the role on an interim basis following the resignation of Terri Goss Kinzy. Tarhule said his selection after a national search led him to feel "overwhelmed" by the level of community support he and his wife Roosmarijn, the fiscal director of facilities management at ISU, received.

"In some ways, I feel, 'Oh gosh — am I going to be able to live up to this pressure, these expectations?' There's a really high level of expectations," he said. "But we'll do our best, and we know the university is on a strong foundation."

On WGLT's Sound Ideas, Tarhule discussed his perspective on a new higher education funding model that he helped develop as a member of the Illinois Commission on Equitable Public University Funding. The model shifts public college and university funding away from largely being tuition-driven and increases the contributions the state would make to institutions. He also discussed the formation of a new committee studying AI at ISU, and the university's plans to adjust for a drop in enrollment as the population of graduating high school seniors drops in the coming years.

On ISU's new 30-member committee of students, staff and faculty tasked with developing a strategic plan for the use of AI:

Tarhule: We need to figure out how we are going to leverage AI as an institution to make sure that we are contributing to its responsible evolution, that we're taking advantage of the good, beneficial aspects of the technology while trying to mitigate the deleterious impacts of the technology. That's what this committee is really supposed to do — obviously it's not open-ended, but we don't want the committee to rush because we know that they're dealing with issues that are very complex and continue to evolve. I think sometime in the fall I would be expecting a report from that committee to get us started. That won't be the end of the committee's work because AI is going to continue to evolve and there will be a need for us to continue to monitor it ... but where we'll be able to get the first outlines of a policy and an approach and areas of priorities is sometime in the fall.

On the ongoing, nationwide delays in the Free Application for Federal Student Aid [FAFSA] awarding process and the impact on ISU:

Tarhule: We are way past the time where we should be sending financial aid offers to students. So enrollments and deposits are lagging way behind where they should be at this point in the admission cycle. The messaging we continue to give out is: We're still working through this, we're working with the federal government and we hope that people will still apply so that maybe we can recover some of the numbers. We are tuition-driven ... so if students choose to not come, that obviously has an immediate financial impact because of the loss of tuition revenues. This is just another layer of complexity and another layer, another confounding factor in our continuing efforts to recruit students and provide them a higher ed education. We really didn't need this, but here we are.

On the newest five-year strategic plan set to go before the Board of Trustees next month and how it anticipates a drop in enrollment due to the predicted demographic cliff:

Tarhule: There's a couple of elements in this plan that I'm very excited about. One was the very collaborative and participatory nature in which it was developed; almost everyone on campus was involved to some level in coming up with these aspirations.

(Secondly) is the idea of ... the other areas and opportunities for new types of academic programs. This is sound management practice at this time because ... as the number of students graduating from high school declines, there's going to be a lot more competition for the fewer students that we have in a state. Therefore, we have to be thoughtful about the programs we provide to make sure they're serving the needs of students as well as employers. We've already developed the College of Engineering, data science (programs), which is coming up, a new master's in physics and a new STEM MBA program, and so on. We need to be thoughtful about designing programs that students and employers want so that if there is a need, we can meet it. I think that's consistent with how we manage enrollment changes.

On a proposal currently before the General Assembly that would move Illinois' public colleges and universities away from a tutition-driven funding model to one in which the state contributes more to each institution based on calculated need:

Tarhule: I am very supportive of this formula. It's not perfect, we've still got work to do and there are areas that I wish didn't turn out the way they have turned out. But anything that we can get is better than the current model. In this new approach, when the state puts in additional revenue to support higher ed, that's going to be distributed or allocated according to this new budget and we will fare much better in this new model compared to what we are at at the present time.

There are several components to the process. Number one is it looks at each institution's current resources ... and then it sets what they call an adequacy funding level: How much does each institution need in order to be able to educate your students adequately? From those two numbers, it creates an adequacy gap: how much money you need to be able to train your students adequately. It does this by calculating what is called an equitable students' share, or how much should a student be able to contribute based on their own resources. How much should the university be able to come up with — and then the state tries to fill in that difference.

If this new funding formula comes to pass, the state will have to put in about $1.3 (billion) to $1.4 billion, additionally. Essentially double the current amount of higher ed appropriations — and we would fare much better. The state is essentially acknowledging and accepting its responsibility to take on more of the burden for higher ed funding.

Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.