Thursday, January 30, 2020

UIS cuts ribbon on Sangamon Experience, a new exhibition telling the history of central Illinois

The University of Illinois Springfield held a grand opening for Sangamon Experience, a new on-campus exhibition telling the history of the Sangamon Region of central Illinois, on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020.

Chancellor Susan J. Koch welcomed a crowd of almost 300 people to the exhibit on the lower level of the Public Affairs Center.

The multifaceted initiative includes a 5,300-square-foot space featuring multimedia and interactive exhibits, historical maps and photographs, a small theater and interpretive text developed by teams of UIS students, faculty and community partners.

“Our opening exhibit has some interactive flat screens featuring different historical images through the years and a wall that covers the years 1800 to 1860 in the Sangamon Region,” said Devin Hunter, UIS assistant professor of history and faculty lead on the project.

Hunter is assisted on the project by a community advisory board that provides feedback and suggests direction for the creation and sustaining of Sangamon Experience.

Beyond the Sangamon Experience space itself, the project includes a dynamic website to share and promote local historical activities, online historical research and customized community partnerships.

The Sangamon Experience space was designed by FWAI Architects, Inc. of Springfield. It was made possible by an anonymous, major private gift to the University of Illinois Springfield.

UIS report finds state and local public safety pension systems underfunded due to contribution method

A new report from the University of Illinois Springfield’s Institute for Illinois Public Finance finds that the state’s public employee pension systems and downstate police and fire pension systems are not contributing enough to fund their liabilities, due in part, to the method used to determine how much money is put into plans each year.

The paper, “Are Illinois State and Local Governments Contributing Enough to Their Pension Plans to Pay Down Their Debt?,” takes a look at some of the assumptions used to determine contributions and how they are affecting the funding levels of pensions in Illinois.

Kenneth Kriz, UIS distinguished professor of public administration and director of the Institute for Illinois Public Finance, said contribution levels are crucial because there are only three levers policymakers can use to try to address pension funding shortfalls: increasing investment returns, decreasing benefit costs and increasing the contributions governments make to the plans.

However, options are limited, at least in the short term, for reducing the cost of benefits or increasing investment returns, said Kriz, who authored the report.

“The third lever, and the one that they can really control a lot, is the contributions they need. So, setting appropriate contribution rates is extremely important,” he said.

Indeed, the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability (COGFA) recently cited insufficient contributions and lower-than-expected investment returns, as prime drivers of an unexpected spike in the state’s unfunded pension liabilities last fiscal year. COGFA pegged that liability at $137.3 billion as of June 30, after Illinois’ unfunded pension liability grew by a half-billion dollars more than initially projected.

Illinois state pension plans and downstate police and fire plans use what is known as the level percentage of payroll assumption for calculating plan costs. Under this assumption, unfunded liabilities are amortized so that the plans expect to pay the same percentage of payroll each year into their pension systems. This is the method most states use, and it assumes that the amount being paid will increase as time goes on and payrolls grow.

Kriz said this method is similar to taking out a balloon-payment loan to buy a house. Under such a loan, payment amounts spike dramatically near the end, when the borrower is paying off the bulk of the principal.

“It may look like governments are contributing enough into their pension plans, if you make a huge number of assumptions,” he said. “However, if you use more realistic assumptions, they’re not anywhere close to contributing enough. That means that the payments are going to have to rise dramatically in the future.”

Another method for determining contributions, known as the level dollar assumption, is similar to taking out a traditional mortgage, where each debt payment is roughly the same amount. Using a level dollar assumption would stop governments from pushing most costs off to the future by requiring larger contributions now. That could leave state and local governments with less revenue to spend on other priorities in the short term, but it would also mean that policymakers in the future will likely not be scrambling to make impossibly high contributions.

Kriz compared the problem to trying to run from Springfield to Chicago. “If you run about 10 miles a day, you will be in Chicago in about 20 years. At the current rate, they’re not only not running that 10 miles, they’re headed in the wrong direction,” Kriz said. “It’s like the goal is Chicago, but they’re headed toward St. Louis instead and hoping to make it all up in the last few years.”

Kriz said that increasing contributions now instead of delaying that fiscal pain would be a challenge, and bad budget years would make it even harder. “Obviously, there will be times that running 10 miles a day is going to be difficult. But if you keep skipping out or going the wrong way, you’re never going to be able to run fast enough to cover all that lost ground. We want to be headed toward Chicago at whatever pace is possible, but it’s got to be realistic”

Kriz said there is a potential upside, too. If governments were to opt for a policy that more resembles a level dollar assumption, the cost of payments would be fairly predictable and easier to plan for in the future. If payrolls continue to grow over the years, the contribution would also become a smaller percentage of payroll over time.

Moves to try to improve efficiency and increase returns on investment, like recently-passed legislation to consolidate suburban and downstate public safety pension funds, could help, Kriz said. “It’s a good first step, but it’s not going to get you all the way. Having better investment returns will help plans become better funded, but it’s not a panacea,” he said.

Kriz said consolidations could open up smaller local governments to more volatility as the consolidated fund takes on riskier investments than they have been able to pursue on their own. “If we have a meltdown in the market next year, God forbid, contributions are going to have to rise,” he said. “And so the question comes back to, are governments going to be willing to and able to make increased payments?”

The full report is available in a white paper format on the UIS Institute for Illinois Public Finance’s website.

Note: This article was produced by the Institute of Government and Public Affairs as part of IGPA’s efforts to connect relevant, nonpartisan research and expertise from the University of Illinois System to the public policy discussion in Illinois.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

UIS Institute for Illinois Public Finance releases report on state government efficiency

A study released today by the University of Illinois Springfield’s Institute for Illinois Public Finance reports mixed results with respect to the efficiency of Illinois state government when compared to other states.

The study finds that Illinois state government is in a group of the most efficient states in three areas: higher education, environment and housing, and infrastructure. It is in the top 20 states for efficiency in welfare, and in the top half of states for public safety and health and hospitals efficiency.

However, the state ranks below average in efficiency in elementary and secondary education and near the bottom in transportation.

“The study is unique in that the measures of efficiency that are produced lead directly to recommendations for improving the efficiency of state government operations,” said Arwi Srithongrung Kriz, a UIS Institute for Illinois Public Finance research fellow who authored the study.

Recommendations in the study include increasing regional or centralized services shared by local school districts for the elementary and secondary education function and reducing capital project acquisition costs when it comes to transportation.

Srithongrung Kriz, an internationally recognized expert on efficiency measurement who holds a doctorate in public administration, developed measures of efficiency for eight functions of state government: higher education, elementary and secondary education, public welfare, health and hospitals, transportation, public safety, environment and housing and infrastructure.

She compares numerous measures of the things that government produces, such as the number of degrees awarded at public universities and the number of prisoners in correctional facilities with the costs of those services and the number of state employees in each function.

Srithongrung Kriz employed a methodology, which she says has been scientifically tested in many settings and is superior to measures used in previous analyses of state government efficiency.

The study is available in a longer working paper format that compares efficiency across all states and a shorter white paper version that focuses on Illinois state government.

For more information, contact Arwi Srithongrung Kriz at 217-206-8047 or

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

UIS to receive a $100,000 grant aimed at developing new programs to support minority students in STEM fields

The University of Illinois Springfield will receive a five-year $100,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant aimed at developing and implementing evidence-based programs that will support the academic success of underrepresented minority (URM) students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Lucía Vázquez, associate dean of the UIS College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, will serve as one of the principal investigators on the project.

“Nationwide, minorities are underrepresented in the STEM workforce; also, of the students who start as STEM majors, about 40 percent of them switch majors and 23 percent drop out of college,” said Vázquez. “Given this situation and the prediction that the demand for professionals in STEM fields will increase in the near future (based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics), then it is imperative that we implement programs to promote the academic success of our minority students in these areas.”

The grant was awarded to the Illinois LSAMP STEM Pathway and Research Alliance (ILSPRA) through Chicago State University. ILSPRA is made up of a diverse group of 10 public and private universities and community colleges in urban and rural settings throughout the state of Illinois; these institutions will collaborate to achieve the objectives of this grant project.

One of the goals of the grant is to increase the participation of URM students in research through the establishment of faculty-student mentoring teams. A second goal is to provide students with academic support in gateway courses through the implementation of a learning assistant (LA) model, which has proven to be effective in increasing student performance. The end goal is to provide a variety of resources to ensure student academic success and to prepare the next generation of scientists.

At the end of the five-year project, the ILSPRA’s goal is to have significantly increased the number of URM students graduating with STEM degrees and joining the workforce or enrolling in STEM graduate programs.

“This is an imperative because there is a need to maintain the nation’s technological edge in an increasingly highly competitive global environment,” said the ILSPRA in their program summary.

In additional to developing actionable models to support URM STEM students, the ILSPRA team will also generate scholarly and peer-reviewed publications on broadening participation that will inform the entire STEM community on evidence-based practices that promote URM student success.

UIS online bachelor’s degree programs ranked among the top 10 percent in the country

The University of Illinois Springfield’s online bachelor’s degree programs have been ranked 33rd best in the country (out of 353 institutions) for a second year in a row by U.S. News and World Report. The 2020 ranking put UIS among the top 10 percent of best online bachelor’s degree programs in the United States.

UIS’ online master’s degree programs were also ranked highly by U.S. News and World Report. The management information systems (MIS) online master’s degree was ranked 41 out of 188 in the non-MBA business category, while the UIS online master’s degree in education was ranked 69 out of 309 degrees.

“Once again this year, U.S. News recognizes that UIS offers online programs that are among the highest quality in the country,” said Ray Schroeder, UIS associate vice chancellor of online learning. “We are most proud of the faculty, staff and students who make this national recognition possible.”

In evaluating the best online bachelor’s degree programs, U.S. News & World Report assessed schools in four general categories including engagement – promoting student participation in courses and interaction with instructors and classmates, service and technologies – incorporating diverse online learning technologies allowing greater flexibility for students to take classes from a distance, faculty credentials and training – employing instructors with academic credentials that mirror campus-based programs and expert opinion – a survey of high-ranking academic officials.

U.S. News selects factors, known as ranking indicators, to assess each program in the categories outlined above. A program's score for each ranking indicator is calculated using data that the program reported to U.S. News in a statistical survey and a peer reputation survey.

UIS offers 14 online bachelor’s degree programs in business administration, communication, computer science, English, health care informatics, history, information systems security, liberal studies, management information systems, mathematical sciences, philosophy, political science, psychology and teacher education.

“UIS offers a unique perspective to online learning,” said Vickie Cook, executive director of UIS online, professional and engaged learning. “We believe that connecting students to exceptionally qualified faculty through strong instruction and online technologies is key to providing experiences that will serve students in their careers and in their lives. UIS faculty often share their experiences of working with great students who are developing the skills needed to be successful.”

According to census data, a total of 1,451 students were enrolled in online at UIS during Fall Semester 2019. UIS online students reside in 45 states, 83 counties in Illinois and 16 foreign countries and one territory (Guam).