As thousands of Illinois high schoolers continue to leave the state for college, the University of Illinois system has chosen to freeze its base-rate tuition for the fourth consecutive year. The move is designed to expand U of I’s affordability and increase its attractiveness to students considering out-of-state schools with larger financial aid packages. Keeping costs low, however, may not be enough to stop the steady stream of students leaving their home state.
According to a recent study by the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE), between 2000 and 2014, the number of high school graduates departing Illinois for college rose 64 percent. A foreboding statistic, this does not even take into account the state’s recent budget impasse, which left public universities without any funding for the entire 2015-16 school year and severely impacted financial aid from Illinois schools.
By fixing tuition, U of I is making a guarantee to all in-state freshman starting in the fall 2018 semester that they will pay the same cost of tuition all four years of schooling. As this is the fourth consecutive year the system has frozen base-rates, these students will pay the same price per year as those who enrolled each fall since 2014. This translates to $12,036 a year at Urbana-Champaign, $10,584 at Chicago, and $9,405 in Springfield. After incorporating room and board and added fees—which U of I has not capped—most students will end up paying more this year than last. Undergraduates pursuing engineering and other popular program will also pay more than the base-rate.
Per the IBHE study, costs definitely are playing a role in the mass-exodus of students out of Illinois. Despite basic tuition and fees being significantly lower at U of I at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), U of I at Chicago, and Illinois State University than at competing out-of-state public universities such as Indiana University, Purdue University, and University of Missouri, these out-of-state schools can often offer more generous financial aid packages. 66 percent of students attending these competing schools received a tuition discount, compared to 59 percent at the Illinois schools.
Despite such competition from out-of-state schools, freezing tuition has seen measurable success. The U of I system now has nearly forty-five thousand Illinois undergraduates across all three campuses, up 5.2 percent since the policy was implemented. While still encouraging, this number does not take into account how U of I officials have admitted hundreds more Illinoisans in recent years than typical, which also contributes to their growing population.
Locking tuition appears to be having a positive, if limited, effect on student retention. Low overall cost, however, is not the only thing high schoolers are looking for in a college.
On average, according to the IBHE, in-state undergraduates paid $8,797 per year for tuition after discounts, whereas Illinois students attending the above out-of-state colleges paid $19,522. While those schools have been particularly aggressive in attracting high-achieving out-of-state prospects, this price disparity illustrates that something besides money is motivating Illinoisans to seek higher education elsewhere.
The recent two-year budget impasse, which left Illinois without a budget from July 2015 to July 2017, is most likely the culprit for a recent acceleration of students leaving the state. While the U of I system is slowly growing its in-state student population, this trend has not extended statewide. Western Illinois University, for example, saw a 21 percent drop in first-time freshman enrollment this past fall, despite seeing little change during the first year of the budget crisis. Illinois State, Eastern Illinois, and Southern Illinois University Carbondale all saw similar declines in their freshman numbers.
Statewide, higher education saw an unprecedented drop in funding from fiscal year 2015 to 2016 due to the budget impasse. Financial support decreased nearly 68 percent across all universities, shorting U of I’s staple campus at Urbana-Champaign $467 million alone. Withholding millions of dollars from state schools has had measurable effects on their image, as illustrated in numerous college rankings. In the wake of several years of significantly decreased funding, U of I at Urbana-Champaign fell eight spots on U.S. News & World Report’s national universities ranking, from 44 to 52. Though not as pronounced, the school also fell in the Times Higher Education’s world universities ranking, from 36 to 37. Illinois State saw a significant drop in its U.S. News ranking as well, falling seventeen spots, from 142 to 159, since 2014.
Beyond rankings, the budget crisis has undermined the public university system’s stability in the public eye. While the impasse was about much more than higher education, the fact it deprived schools of so much money does not reflect particularly well on the state’s commitment to its higher educational system. Compared to recently shaky state funding, many private universities’ endowments, or even public universities in more fiscally stable states, seem to offer a safer guarantee of quality schooling for years to come.
The impasse does not explain why high schoolers have been leaving the state ever since the new millennium, but it does act as an extension of Illinois’s diminishing commitment to higher education over the last decade and a half. Per 2015 data compiled by the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability (CTBA), a non-partisan think tank, the state’s general assembly delegated $1.99 billion to its public universities. Adjusting for inflation and increases in population, this number is down a staggering 41 percent from 2000. While other services have seen adjusted cuts as well, higher education was down the most during this period. If Illinois public universities are to avoid tuition hikes, they must make up for this lost funding with spending cuts to departments, programs, and facilities.
Illinois high schoolers aren’t just seeking out the most financially attainable education when they leave the state: they are looking for the best value overall. This includes cost, but also experience. With larger operating budgets, out-of-state schools can increasingly offer programs Illinois schools cannot.
The question remains, however: what are the benefits of keeping Illinois high schoolers in state for college? And are they worth the decreased funding that comes along with a tuition freeze?
All things considered, U of I’s decision to freeze its base-rate tuition is limiting the ever-increasing number of students leaving Illinois for college. The system, however, cannot continue the lock tuition indefinitely without losing significant and well-needed funding. Unfortunately, this action also does nothing to affect perhaps the greatest long-term driver of students to out-of-state schools: diminished funding. Schools keeping costs low is key to retaining in-state students, but their fate ultimately rests in the state legislature’s hands. Its members must quickly decide how much they truly value a strong public university system.
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Chase Gardner is a second-year Environmental and Urban Studies major and Statistics minor. He has interned at ActionStreamer, a tech startup in Cincinnati, and CinemaSol, a documentary film production company. On campus, Chase runs for the Varsity Cross Country and Track teams. In free moments, he enjoys impromptu guitar/synth jam-sessions and watching existentially angsty movies.