Policymakers | Costs

New UI leadership will face a tough economic climate

THE NEWS-GAZETTE   |  November 22, 2009 by Anne D. Neal

After hearing that Urbana-Champaign’s beleaguered chancellor resigned a few weeks ago, interim University of Illinois President Stanley Ikenberry announced that the university had finally turned the page on the admissions scandal that rattled its main campus.

“What we have here is the opening of a new chapter,” he said.

Indeed. With several new administrators on the way and six new trustees in place, the stage is now set for the University of Illinois to get down to the business of providing students with a sound education at a reasonable price.

And they’ve got their work cut out for them.

A new report card on higher education in Illinois concludes that the state’s public universities find themselves on a course that is quite simply unsustainable.

Tuition and fees are spiraling out of control. Graduation rates remain woefully low. Crucial subjects like economics, American history or government, and college-level math are not required at most universities. And significant numbers of students report an intellectual climate that is not conducive to a robust exchange of ideas. Although we note the occasional bright spot here and there, on the whole, the picture that emerges is one in which costs continue to rise with no attending increase in academic quality.

During the five-year period we focused on, in-state tuition and fees jumped by an average of 56 percent—after adjusting for inflation. Put another way, a year of college cost the average Illinois family 25 percent more of its income in 2007 than it did in 2002.

The universities will, of course, blame decreases in state appropriations. But reflexive tuition increases cannot be the only means of balancing the budget. Many problems facing higher education are the result of too much spending, not too little. It is time for administrators and trustees to lead by cutting costs wherever they can.

Reining in galloping costs is, however, only half the battle. There is an equally pressing need to improve academic quality. With the exception of Urbana-Champaign, none of the ten schools we researched has a six-year graduation rate above 70 percent. Read that again: six years! While graduation rates have made modest gains in recent years, too many students are still investing time and money into a university education they don’t complete.

It is also imperative to beef up general education requirements, so that those who do graduate don’t walk away with a thin and patchy education. In the land of Lincoln, you can graduate from any one of the universities we examined without having taken a broad survey of American history or government—the kind that would expose you to Lincoln’s ideas and allow you to understand his role in our nation’s history. Ditto with economics and literature.

There is also evidence that the classroom climate is not always what you would expect at a university. According to a scientific survey commissioned for the report card, almost a third of students at UIUC and SIU-Carbondale report perceived pressure to agree with a professor’s social or political views in order to get a good grade in certain classes. This is completely unacceptable.

Illinois students, parents and taxpayers spend a great deal on their public universities. Isn’t it time trustees and policymakers made sure they got their money’s worth?


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

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