Identifying an issue generally isn’t a problem in Illinois politics. Agreeing on the underlying causes and plotting a fix, however, can be far greater challenges.
There is widespread consensus that too many Prairie State students are heading elsewhere for college, and that declining enrollment complicates an already difficult funding system for higher education.
Blame the budget stalemate, admission standards, course offerings, tuition and fees, broader issues in higher education … it’s a long list, and some folks end up going with “all of the above.”
Solutions, or at least proposals, are widespread as well, and a major player entered the fray earlier this week when the University of Illinois announced a plan to cover tuition and basic fees for in-state undergraduates whose family income is less than $61,000.
The first thing to know is that the $61,000 figure is no accident, it’s pegged to the state median income and so it could fluctuate accordingly. (According to the Census Bureau, the federal median household income is about $56,000, while the McHenry County number is $79,836.) Beyond that, there are conditions: no student would get more than eight semesters covered, new transfer students would be eligible for up to six semesters provided they are younger than 24 and, most importantly, other expenses such as books, dorm rental and meal service would still be the student’s responsibility.
The base coverage would be at least $15,000 a student, depending on their major. University officials said the program’s initial cost is
$4 million, funded through a combination of institutional, federal and state aid, including Pell Grants and Monetary Award Program grants.
In other words, primarily public money.
The AP also estimated the total cost of attending a year at UIUC is $31,000 to $36,000. Financial aid would be available, and while that can be a lengthy process, any student planning to apply for any college should be submitting a Free Application for Federal Student Aid form.
“This is designed to simplify that concept: If my family income is less than $61,000, I know that tuition and fees are covered,” Vice Provost Kevin Pitts said.
Covering these expenses isn’t only about getting kids into college, it’s also about what their financial forecast looks like upon graduation. The AP cited data from 2016-2017 showing about 45 percent of University of Illinois students take out loans, and the average debt upon graduation is $24,667. Finding a job is difficult enough, but starting life after college while trying to fit paying down loan debt into the budget is a complex matter that often impedes otherwise qualified folks from fully contributing to the economy.
There are other ways to keep Illinois kids closer to home for college.
One we favor strongly is ensuring broad access to quality community colleges, which can provide foundational educational opportunities while allowing students to live at home and further develop kids so they are better prepared to succeed when moving on to a four-year institution.
In another approach, lawmakers recently set aside $25 million for public universities to match and create a pool of merit-based scholarships, not based on financial need.
Ultimately, if the state is going to be in the business of higher education – and we absolutely think it should be – then it needs to provide its publicly funded institutions the resources to compete for quality staff and students. And yes, those provisions cost money, but failing to do so means walking away from decades of investment in trying to keep these schools worthy of the effort.
The new approach to tuition at University of Illinois is a step worth taking.