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University of Illinois officials last week said that a higher percentage of students accepted at the U. of I. are deciding to go elsewhere because financial aid is insufficient. It’s another sign that Illinois’ continuous cuts are gradually eroding the state’s higher education system.
If you adjust for inflation, Illinois’ investment in higher education has been cut by 40 percent since 2000, according to the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. The share of costs borne by the state has dropped from nearly half a decade ago to less than 15 percent. To keep universities afloat, tuition has soared. State funding has dropped so much that people joke we no longer have state universities, just universities in the state.
As the U. of I. board prepares to vote on its annual budget Thursday, board members should keep in mind the cuts are taking a toll. For many Illinois students admitted to their flagship public university, higher tuition without a commensurate bump in financial aid means they can’t afford to attend. The percentage of admitted Illinois students who actually enrolled at the Urbana-Champaign campus — the so-called “yield” — has dropped from about 58 percent in 2006 to 45 percent last fall.
That’s just part of the bad news for students attending public universities in Illinois and around the nation.
† To survive financially, universities, including the U. of I., are accepting more full-pay foreign and out-of-state students, which means fewer slots for Illinois applicants. The U. of I. at Urbana enrolls about 1,000 fewer Illinois students than it did 10 years ago.
† Funding for public higher education isn’t an issue just in Illinois. Tuition has gone up so much that, according to a Government Accountability Office report Wednesday, even tens of thousands of senior citizens aged 64 to 74 are struggling to pay back college loans. The percentage of seniors with student loan debt quadrupled from 2004 to 2010, and the total amount owned grew to $18.2 billion last year. Social Security benefits for tens of thousands of seniors are being cut to make up for missed payments.
The United States was a leader in opening the doors to higher education for its citizens, helping to build a strong middle class. Eighty percent of Americans who get their college degrees earn them at public universities. An America true to its traditions would not limit fine higher education to the wealthy.
But, unfortunately, when state lawmakers are squeezed for cash, higher education is a comparatively easy place to cut. It affects fewer citizens than, say, K-12 education, and the effects of cuts are not as apparent to voters. When tuition shoots up to make up for state funding cuts, people tend to blame the schools, not the Legislature.
Illinois advocates for higher education have lowered their goals so much that they fight just to keep inevitable cuts from being draconian. But even that might be a losing battle. One of the policy changes that has been discussed is to shift the cost of pensions from the state to the universities, which would be devastating if the state provided no additional funding to help pay for the switch. Also, the state faces the scheduled ending of the temporary state income tax increase at the end of the year.
But the declining “yield” at the U. of I. shows public universities have reached the point where they can’t raise tuition by big chunks anymore. Students are choosing to go elsewhere, or they are skipping a college education altogether. That’s bad for them, and it’s bad for the state. A strong economy needs a well-educated work force.