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Affordable public universities worth it

The University Illinois campus Champaign.  |  AP

The University of Illinois campus in Champaign. | AP

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Updated: February 25, 2014 6:28AM



A statistic that popped up Thursday in Springfield shed discouraging light on the soaring cost of public higher education in Illinois. In its annual report, the Federation of Independent Illinois Colleges and Universities said it now costs Illinoisans less to attend and support private colleges and universities than their public counterparts, after public subsidies are taken into account.

Oh, and in other news Thursday, tuition for new students is going up again at the University of Illinois after a board vote — a 1.7 percent bump for in-state undergraduates or about 86 percent more than a decade ago.

According to the FIICU, the cost of attending public colleges and universities has been growing significantly faster than at their private counterparts. When all costs are considered, the net cost at private schools went up 5 percent from fiscal year 2009 to fiscal year 2012, compared with 21 percent at public institutions.

Dwindling state support for public higher education over the years is a big part of that equation, and it’s reached the point where advocates have given up asking for budget increases and now just hope to keep cuts to a minimum. We see the results everywhere — higher tuitions, huge piles of student debt, the decreasing ability for state schools to hold onto top faculty members or even full-time faculty positions as more of the teaching load is handed to itinerant adjuncts. Student debt now tops $1 trillion nationally, and in Illinois, which ranks 15th among states in total student debt, 64 percent of students graduate with loans they must repay.

Other results of relentless cost cutting: Schools are trying to fill more of the available slots with international students, who often pay double what in-state students do. And the University of Illinois at Chicago now faces a potential strike by faculty members, who have had only one pay raise in five years.

The rising share of higher education costs for students means some are taking on too much debt and others are priced out altogether. The state’s goal should be to provide the option of a solid higher education for every student who is qualified, but we are making higher education less affordable for the very people the public university system was designed to help. Nationwide, state support for higher education is 11 percent lower than it was before the recession.

Last year, public education in Illinois avoided the budget ax partly because of the so-called April surprise, when higher-than-expected income tax payments from people anticipating federal tax law changes brought in extra state revenue. Now, though, the state is facing the scheduled ending of the temporary state income tax increase at the end of the year, which would open an estimated $1.9 billion deficit in the state’s operating fund in the 2015 fiscal year. How to replace that revenue will be a topic of discussion in Springfield, but there’s no guarantee anything will happen quickly. Remember, it took years to negotiate a pension deal.

Last week, President Barack Obama called university presidents to the White House, asking them to help expand access to higher education. That necessarily involves public institutions of higher education because that’s where 80 percent of students go.
Obama has the right idea. His goal is one we can’t lose sight of, even in tough budgetary times. A fine college education should not be a choice available only to the wealthy. The middle class and the disadvantaged need access as well, if we are to offer every American who has the ability and is willing to work a chance to succeed. A good — and affordable — education is the pathway for a new generation to become better and more productive citizens. The gates on that pathway must remain open.



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