DECATUR — Colleges and universities in Illinois are starting the new academic year with something they haven't had for a while: a full-year state budget in place and a degree of optimism.

Several schools, including some that have struggled to attract new students, are expecting gains in freshman enrollment.

But there are concerns about the ongoing debate over the value — and expense — of higher education and the adequacy of state funding.

Several colleges and universities are placing greater emphasis on making practical or “real-world” experiences part of their curriculum.

“Mike Rowe of 'Dirty Jobs' has a very valid point about pragmatic education, skills-based education,” said Lincoln College President David Gerlach.

That's a reason why his school emphasizes hands-on experiences, Gerlach said.

Said Eureka College President Jamel Wright, “We're very committed to liberal arts education, but it has to be focused.”

Educators need to “give a nod to the workforce,” said Wright. “We get it. We're not tone deaf.”

Eureka College is designing new courses for a “capabilities-based curriculum” that will give students a mastery of specific skills sought by employers, including communication and the ability to work as a team.

At Bloomington's Illinois Wesleyan University, this is taking the form of what's being called the “signature experience” — a requirement for students to complete a project with real-world application before graduation.

The goal is “to have one foot in (college) and one foot out,” said IWU President Eric Jensen.

IWU freshmen also are being offered courses with a “real-world” component, such as an animal science class that will include a spring break trip to work with zookeepers in Louisville, Ky.

For Illinois State University President Larry Dietz, “The value of education hasn't really changed; it's become more important.”

He pointed to studies that show the lifetime earnings of people with a bachelor's degree are more than $1 million higher than those of people without a college degree.

“We're a good investment,” said Dietz.

Illinois State University President Larry Dietz answers email in his office in Hovey Hall on Aug. 15.  DAVID PROEBER, HERALD & REVIEW NEWS SERVICE

The difficulty, he said, is that the costs are front-loaded, coming at the beginning of the process, before the higher pay kicks in.

Millikin University President Patrick White pointed to an old bumper sticker: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

Overall, college graduates not only earn higher wages, they are more involved in their communities, experience better health and are more resilient in a recession, said Gerlach.

“The onus is on us to keep our universities affordable and accessible,” said David Glassman, president of Eastern Illinois University in Charleston.

Having a state budget approved “allows us to do planning and gives confidence to the public,” said Glassman, reflecting the views of several presidents interviewed for this story.

The budget impasse wasn't only a problem for public schools. Funding for the Monetary Award Program, which gives grants to college students in public and private schools, also was in limbo during the budget impasse.

For example, Millikin University students receive about $3 million in MAP grants each year, according to White.

Gov. Bruce Rauner signed into law last week the measure that gives priority for MAP grants to eligible returning students. He said nearly 130,000 students received MAP grants in fiscal year 2018, and all but graduating students may be eligible for priority status this year.

Austin Oberg, front, and Leo Briseno of Sigma Alpha Epsilon play a game of bags in front of their fraternity house on the Millikin University campus.  JIM BOWLING, HERALD & REVIEW

But even though the new law provides greater certainty to MAP recipients that they will receive four years of support, there is still a question of funding the program going forward.

Dietz noted that only 49 percent of students who apply and qualify for a grant actually receive it. There is not enough money appropriated for the other 51 percent, he said, adding that several states are re-investing in their higher education systems.

“Tennessee has come out as a star performer,” said Dietz. It has developed a scholarship program that, at a given income level, makes a community college free, he explained. New York and several other states have or are considering similar plans.

Students are “voting with their feet” and staying in Tennessee, providing an educated workforce, said Dietz.

Student Jamie Gamonez reads in a study area at the Millikin University Commons.  JIM BOWLING, HERALD & REVIEW

Meanwhile, Illinois is among the top “exporters” of students to other states, noted Dietz. Those who leave are less likely to return to Illinois to share their knowledge, pay taxes and start businesses, he said, causing Illinois to “lose intellectual capital.”

But having a stable budget in place is “a great step in the right direction,” said Dietz.

Contact Lenore Sobota at (309) 820-3240. Follow her on Twitter: @Pg_Sobota