UI tuition freeze welcome

UI tuition freeze welcome

It wasn't all that long ago that the University of Illinois was raising tuition every year. But times have changed.

People who have been paying attention know that the high cost of obtaining a college education and the long-term debt students run up in the process pose a significant problem for families today.

So it's good news that the University of Illinois is able to propose a freeze on in-state tuition for another year. UI trustees are scheduled to vote on the measure at their Jan. 19 meeting. If approved, as the measure is expected to be, it would mark the third straight year of frozen tuition.

But it's more than that. The proposal represents a tuition freeze for the four-year tenure of the 2017-18 freshman class. Under a state law passed during the Rod Blagojevich administration, tuition rates for incoming freshmen do not change over four years.

While that approach can make a big difference for those whose budgets are tight, the cost of a UI education remains formidable.

The cost of attending the UI for a year is over $27,000. That number includes $12,036 in tuition, $3,662 in fees and another $11,308 for room and board. Add another $5,004 for engineering, physics, chemistry and business (other programs also have tuition rates higher than the base rate).

UI tuition, obviously, is high. Indeed, it's ranked third-highest in the Big Ten, trailing only Northwestern and Penn State.

Of course, in-state tuition is just a part of the UI's income stream.

Graduate students, out-of-state students and international students will pay much higher rates, ranging from nearly $27,000 to slightly more than $29,000. That's why the UI gets such a big income boost from those students who travel from other countries to attend school here.

Nonetheless, the UI finds itself in a difficult financial situation.

It generates strong income from tuition, grants and gifts. But as the state of Illinois has fallen steadily over the years into a state of effective bankruptcy, state aid has declined with it. That terrible situation has been exacerbated by the ongoing 18-month budget standoff between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Without a state budget in place, the General Assembly cannot appropriate funds for its public universities and community colleges. To forestall disaster, Rauner and legislators cobbled together a partial budget that expired on Dec. 31. But even under that partial solution, according to the UI's chief financial officer, Walter Knorr, the state still owes the UI about $45 million.

That's on top of a reduction of an estimated $750 million over the past two years, one of the many adverse consequences of this state's failure to put its financial house in order.

The good news is that the UI has other resources on which it can rely. Think of how desperate the situation is at other public universities, like Eastern and Western Illinois, that do not have the UI's financial flexibility.

The question, of course, is how long the UI can go before it raises its tuition. Executive Vice President Barbara Wilson said the UI, weighing a complicated mix of issues, is taking it one year at a time.

Fundamental to resolving that issue is the nature of land-grant universities, like the UI.

The Morrill Act, which created these institutions, was signed into law during the Civil War by President Abraham Lincoln.

The aim was to create a system of public universities in the states that would provide higher education to the children of the middle class and the poor that was comparable to the education the children of the rich received at private institutions. Public institutions with unaffordably high tuition aren't meeting that challenge.

The UI is, of course, one of the leading public research universities. So it's always going to be more expensive to attend than other public universities with different missions. How high — and how much of a disincentive the cost represents — is the million-dollar question.

Further, it's one that goes beyond individual institutions.

The UI is a state institution, requiring the state to become part of the solution instead of part of the problem. The governor and legislators from both parties must dedicate themselves to restoring Illinois to sound financial health. They haven't been up to that task for years.

Until they do, the entire state, including the UI, will be staggering from year to year.

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