Tom Kacich: Bipartisan panel will take fresh look at tuition waivers
The historic — and generally popular — legislation that killed the much-abused General Assembly scholarship program in Illinois this spring had a second provision that probably isn't as popular in public university communities like Champaign-Urbana.
It called for the creation of a task force to study and evaluate the hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of other tuition and fee waivers offered by Illinois public universities. Those include research and teaching assistantships, veterans grants and scholarships, athletic scholarships, foreign exchange student waivers and the 50 percent tuition waivers offered to the children of certain university faculty and staff.
Overall, according to an Illinois Board of Higher Education report, about $414.9 million undergraduate and graduate tuition and fee waivers were awarded in fiscal year 2011 by all public universities in the state. At the University of Illinois' Urbana campus, the total amounted to about $196 million.
The vast majority of those UI waivers — some $128.5 million — went to research assistants, teaching assistants and other graduate assistants.
Those are generally non-controversial, but some legislators lashed out at the $8.1 million in waivers given to the children of university employees ($3.2 million of which went to 622 students at the Urbana campus). They were upset their legislative scholarships were being taken away while university employees would retain theirs. Rep. Edward Acevedo, D-Chicago, suggested that "poor people can't go to college because they're going to take away legislative scholarships, but it's OK for people who make six-figure salaries to get 50 percent off on their scholarships."
It's possible the new tuition waiver task force, made up of eight legislators, could push to wipe out all or some of the other scholarships, including the waiver for children of university employees. But that's not likely, given the makeup of the seven task force members appointed thus far.
Five of the seven represent districts that include public universities: Sen. Mike Frerichs, D-Champaign; Sen. Edward Maloney, D-Chicago (whose district includes Chicago State University); Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington (Illinois State); Rep. Mike Bost, R-Carbondale (Southern Illinois University); and Sen. Christine Johnson, R-Shabbona (Northern Illinois University). Senate Republicans still have to name one more panel member.
Conspicuously missing from the task force are the Democrats, including Acevedo, Rep. Luis Arroyo and Sen. Martin Sandoval, who were most outspoken about the death of the 106-year-old legislative scholarship program while the other tuition and waivers continued. That's a clear sign that the legislative leaders, who made the appointments to the task force, don't believe the other tuition breaks should be discarded.
"I don't think there are any preconceived notions about what if anything needs to be done away with," said Frerichs. "But I think that with any part of state government, it is good to review periodically.
"I think the vast majority of waivers that are given out at the University of Illinois — other than General Assembly waivers — are things that other schools do and that we probably need to maintain in order to be competitive."
In a planning meeting that Frerichs and Maloney had recently, he said he learned that "almost every other Big Ten school has a similar tuition waiver for children of employees, or something better."
Some have a 100 percent waiver, he said. Northwestern "offered not just free tuition for children of faculty and staff to their school, they offered it to anywhere else they'd want to go. That is what the (board of higher education) and our staff told us."
Frerichs said he believes the task force will begin meeting sometime after the Nov. 6 election. It has until April 15 to issue a report.
"After a couple of meetings, we'll have a very good idea of what direction we're going. It's possible that some people may decide we need to take an ax to these or to look more closely at them," Frerichs said.
If that's the case, he said it's possible the task force would conduct hearings on college campuses.
"But if (the task force members) say there are good reasons for the majority of these (waivers), then I don't see that's a reason to run around and get people scared all across the state, if it's clear that that's the will of the committee early on," he said.
Frerichs indicated he continues to support the tuition waivers, particularly the graduate assistantships.
"If the universities did not have the ability to give these out, they would just have to pay salaries to these people. I think this is a more cost-effective way of making sure that their students are able to afford their education and that they're able to have help running classes on campus. Every other school does this," Frerichs said.
"The next biggest one is athletic waivers, and almost every other school does that; and at the University of Illinois most of those waivers are not waivers, they're scholarships with funds raised by the (Division of Intercollegiate Athletics). I don't think there's really a problem with either of those two," he said.
And, he said, the waivers for children of employees "seem to be a very common practice, at least in the Big Ten."
Danos fundraiser. George Danos, the Democratic candidate for Champaign County auditor, will have a fundraiser from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Saturday at the Urbana home of Jean Paley. Suggested contribution is $25. Call 384-8165 for information or to RSVP.
Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. His column appears in print on Sundays and Wednesdays. He can be reached at 351-5221 or at email@example.com.