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Don’t stick trusting  families with bailout cost for College Illinois!

Updated: January 16, 2012 10:22AM

If you buy a steel safe advertised as tamper-proof, you don’t expect to find when you get it home that the back is made of cardboard.

Similarly, when you join a state investment program, you expect it to be rock solid.

That’s why it was such a disagreeable surprise to read in a report made public Monday that the state’s College Illinois! program has a foundation about as steady as the Leaning Tower of Pisa’s.

College Illinois!, which was started in 1998, is supposed to let families lock in today’s tuition rates for their children’s college educations at state universities in future years. But according to the report, the prepaid tuition program could require a $1.6 billion bailout from the state to remain solvent during the next 25 years.

The state hasn’t promised to come up with the money, but it must. Illinois simply can’t stick families with the bill. This is a problem created by the state, and it’s up to the state to solve it.

The families that bought into this program, often with an eye toward sending their son or daughter some day to the likes of University of Illinois or Illinois State University, are generally not folks with enough money to envision sending their offspring to pricey private schools. They had to put cash into the program at the same time they were trying to pay for everything from piano lessons to the mortgage.

If the state doesn’t deliver on its end of the bargain, they’ll be in trouble.

The Illinois Student Assistance Commission, which runs the program, has been criticized for slow sales and its investment decisions. The program’s underfunding rose from 7 percent in 2007 to 18 percent last May. As of March, the commission had 54,275 prepaid tuition contracts, but it stopped selling new contracts on Sept. 30 while it sorts everything out.

Various proposals are floating around to right this ship, and those running the program say they are confident they’ll be able to do so. The commission — which points out it has paid all its bills on time and already has cut its deficit significantly — plans to make recommendations to Gov. Pat Quinn and the Legislature in spring.

State Sen. Jim Durkin (R-Western Springs), who has a College Illinois! contract for his daughter, said he is working on legislation to make the program more transparent as well.

When lawmakers do return to Springfield for the next year’s session, they need to put this at the top of the agenda. If state lawmakers do nothing to prop up the program, it could be drained completely by 2022.

And the longer doubts swirl around College Illinois!, the more people will shy away from it and the harder it will be to sell new contracts, which are critical to restoring financial stability. In just the last three months, nervous families have withdrawn more than $12 million from the program.

In an era when tuition at Illinois public universities keeps rising at unpredictable rates, families need a program like College Illinois!.

Quinn and the Legislature need to get it back on sound footing.

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