Remarks, March 14, 2019 Meeting of the Board of Trustees

As prepared for delivery for President Tim Killeen

Thank you, Chairman Edwards. I am deeply grateful to you and all of the trustees who joined us to help send off the Class of 2019 during commencement ceremonies that wrapped up across our universities last weekend. Commencements are far and away our biggest celebrations of the year. You could even call them a Founder’s Day, of sorts, with a healthy dose of Fourth of July sizzle--annual events that symbolize why we exist, why we were created in the first place. 

Every year, our commencements put thousands upon thousands of faces to the core mission handed down in 1862 when the Morrill Act gave rise to our land-grant campus in Urbana-Champaign and ultimately a system of three universities known around the world for excellence. Signed into law by Illinois’ own Abraham Lincoln, the act envisioned a new network of colleges “to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.” In short, it called for opening the doors of higher education wide to every deserving student, not just the privileged. Those universities would plant the seeds of learning to transform the lives of students one-by-one, at a massive scale that would harvest bumper crops of world-class talent year after year to lift the fortunes of our state, our nation and our world. It worked: redefining higher education and supplying the know-how that helped carry a then-agrarian nation through the industrial revolution and into a digital age that would have been beyond imagination back then.

The University of Illinois System has helped lead the way, from beginnings that will seem astonishingly humble to all of us who have only known the system as the powerhouse it is today. The first graduating class listed in our records, from 1878, a decade after the first classes began at what was then a single campus, shows only 50 degrees were awarded. Just think about that. Fifty. Today, UIS alone has 52 undergraduate and graduate degree programs. Not degrees--whole programs. Add in Urbana-Champaign and Chicago, and our system now offers well over 500 degree programs. That small graduating class was no outlier. Degrees awarded hovered between about 20 and 90 for nearly 30 years before topping 100 for the first time in 1897. Almost 20 more years passed before we went over 1,000, in 1916. A half-century of steady growth and the addition of UIC pushed degrees over the 10,000 mark in 1969, and it has been off-to-the-races ever since.

It took 100 years to hit that 10,000 milestone. But just 43 years later, a system that grew to three campuses with the addition of UIS doubled that, topping 20,000 degrees in 2012. We have seen a string of new records every year since and expect another one when final degree counts for 2019 are known this summer: our second straight year over 22,000 degrees. It’s a big number. Bigger than the population of Illinois cities such as Charleston, East Moline or Park Forest. And it will build on another big number: a global alumni base that will push past 750,000 this year, bigger than the population of Detroit, or Nashville or Boston.

Our growth is rooted in academic excellence, world-class faculty and an unwavering commitment to the needs and the success of our students.

Our commitment keeps students in school, with a system-wide freshman retention rate of 88 percent compared to the national average of 81 percent. It keeps them on track to earn their degrees, with a 76 percent six-year graduation rate across the system, well above the national average of 60 percent. They graduate with less debt than the $28,650 national average, about $8,000 less here at UIS and $6,000 less in Urbana-Champaign. And their degrees unlock the doors to the dreams that they entrusted us to help them achieve.

Whether they have their eye on a job or moving on to graduate or professional school, our graduates report that our universities lift them to their goals. In Urbana, 91 percent of graduates secure those “first destination” spots within six months of graduation, and 78 percent at UIC. Here at UIS, 90 percent of graduates achieve their “first destination” within a year. And our graduates say their degrees have earning power, reporting robust starting salaries of nearly $61,000 a year on average in Urbana-Champaign, $54,000 at UIC and more than $47,000 at UIS.

I had the honor and privilege of helping send the Class of 2019 off to the next step in its journey at commencements across the system last week and last weekend. Hundreds if not thousands of people joined me at every one to celebrate our graduates, but those ceremonies are about anything but numbers. They are about the smiles, the hugs, the tears of joy and the pride shared by our graduates, their family and friends, and the faculty and staff who helped them achieve the dreams that they have been chasing for a lifetime. Our chancellors had ringside seats for it all, and I would like each of them to tell us a little about what they saw.

*Chancellor presentations*

Robert, Michael, Susan and their teams never stop working to make their commencements even bigger and transform the lives of even more students.

Across the system, we spend at least $9 million annually to recruit new students. That includes more than 2,500 visits to high schools and appearances at college fairs every year, and over 6.4 million pieces of digital and print material sent to students and families. And it includes an emphasis on underrepresented students, such as our annual Salute to Academic Achievement luncheon that connects our universities with high-achieving minority students and new regional events that reach out to students from historically low-sending Illinois counties.

We also continue to ramp up affordability efforts to ensure a U of I education is within the reach of every deserving student. That includes an in-state tuition freeze that the board has extended to a fifth straight year next fall, the longest run of consecutive freezes in a half-century. Because of the state’s four-year tuition guarantee, it means a student who enrolls next fall will pay the same for their senior year in 2022 as a student who started classes in 2014, nearly a decade earlier. We also have increased institutionally funded financial aid by 138 percent over the last decade, to $231 million annually, and will add another $10 million to that next year if the state approves our fiscal 2020 budget request.

Those initiatives and more support our push to reach the ambitious goal you set for us three years ago … to increase system-wide enrollment to more than 93,600 students by 2021. At the time, it set a target of adding about 10,000 students and we have stayed on track to reach it ever since, increasing enrollment to nearly 86,000 students last fall, a record high for the sixth straight year. Interest in our universities is strong, with undergraduate applications for fall that were up more than 10 percent compared to the year before and offers of admission that were are up more than 5 percent. So we are hopeful for another year of record enrollment, moving us ever closer to the challenge you handed us in 2016 to grow enrollment by 15 percent over five years. More students equal more graduates. So when--not if--when we reach our goal, that 15 percent increase should produce similar growth in the number of degrees we award. Projected out, that would add more than 3,000 new degrees over five years once the goal is reached in 2021, pushing our total past 25,000 by 2026.

It would build further on the mission handed down by President Lincoln that we have proudly carried for over a century and a half: to chart an even brighter tomorrow for the students, the people and the future of our state and our nation. My thanks to the board for sharing your time and talents to help make the University of Illinois System “altogether extraordinary.”