Tuition program off disabled list
Parents will have to think carefully before investing in the state's prepaid tuition program.
College Illinois, the state's prepaid tuition program, will be back in business Oct. 1 after a yearlong hiatus.
But it's unclear if the financial problems underlying the program have been sufficiently addressed or whether they continue to offer false promise to parents looking to get a jump on financing their children's college education.
College Illinois, which is administered by the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, drew the ire of Gov. Pat Quinn and state legislators last year after a probe by Auditor General William Holland revealed a series of administrative and financial problems.
Most disturbing was the disclosure that the $1.1 billion program is roughly 30 percent underfunded. That underfunding raises the specter that the money needed to purchase college tuition will not be there in future years.
It's a big deal for the 33,000 families who have purchased 54,000 active contracts on behalf of their children and are counting on it to pay off.
The program's premise is attractive: parents can pay a discounted rate now for college tuition that their children can cash in when they reach college age.
The difference between what is paid now and the cost of a semester's tuition years from now is to be made up by earnings from the investment of money paid into College Illinois.
But state officials made two huge mistakes.
They did not anticipate skyrocketing tuition costs, and they overestimated what their gains would be on their investments.
In other words, they guaranteed payments of the tuition without knowing what either the cost would be or how much money they would have. Those glaring oversights are, needless to say, a recipe for disaster.
Current costs are steep, far higher than what they were for parents who purchased tuition contracts years ago.
Parents buying their newborn baby one semester of tuition at the University of Illinois will pay $12,676. For eight semesters, the current charge is $95,885.
Those same parents would pay $1,965 for one semester at Parkland College, $7,071 for four semesters.
College Illinois has undergone dramatic changes since its problems were revealed. It has a new executive director, a new board of trustees and a new investment strategy. But it's far from clear whether those changes will make enough of a difference to solve the underfunding problem.
State Rep. Jim Durkin, a Republican from Western Springs who is a member of a legislative task force overseeing College Illinois, expressed uncertainty about how the program will generate sufficient revenue.
"I don't have an answer for that (question)," he said.
Durkin acknowledged that College Illinois was "overly ambitious" in its original incarnation and said that "results are going to be measured over the next eight or nine months."
"They are on a short leash," he said.
Of course, one way to guarantee having the money to meet future obligations is to charge more for tuition contracts. But higher costs will discourage contract sales, just as bad publicity surrounding the long-term viability of College Illinois will discourage sales.
College Illinois, no doubt, has been the subject of positive change over the past year. But its future, particularly during the current economic malaise, is far from a sure thing.