Policymakers | Costs

State’s public universities need better management

THE STATE JOURNAL-REGISTER   |  October 29, 2009 by Collin Hitt

Earlier this month, college students from across Illinois crowded the Capitol rotunda. They were protesting the growing costs of college, for which they believed lawmakers were to blame: State funding had been cut earlier this year for a tuition assistance program called the Monetary Award Program (MAP).

Put in place decades ago, MAP provides money to students with limited ability to afford college. One can understand what drove the students to protest cuts to the program. This was money that would have otherwise gone straight into their bursar accounts.

Lawmakers bowed to the pressure and restored the line-item appropriation for the program (without any idea of where the money will come from). Students went home, feeling a little easier that college would become more affordable.

Unfortunately, unless something changes in how taxpayer-funded higher education is managed, the recent restoration of MAP funding will make little difference. College will grow altogether unaffordable for many families. Take the state’s public universities, for example. The MAP program has not and cannot keep pace with skyrocketing tuition and spending at these institutions.

Today, the Illinois Policy Institute (IPI), along with the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), will release a report examining the state’s major public universities. Adjusting for inflation, the report finds that “from 2002 to 2007, in-state tuition and fees jumped by an average of 56 percent, with no campus increasing rates by less than 42 percent and two campuses increasing rates by more than 70 percent.”

In the last decade, tuition and fee hikes at the state’s major universities have almost entirely chewed up the aid provided through the MAP program. In 2002, the average tuition at a home campus was $5,360 for a MAP grant recipient attending one of the state’s major public universities (in 2007 inflation-adjusted dollars). By 2007, tuition had climbed to $7,827—an increase of nearly $2,500.

MAP grant assistance at those campuses remained stable over that period, providing just under $3,600 to the average recipient. In 2002, the MAP program was able to cover a vast majority of tuition and fees for students. Now we have neared the point where the net cost of college at state universities is almost as expensive as the upfront, unaided net cost of tuition and fees of only seven years before.

If in 2002, lawmakers had completely eliminated the MAP grant program, they would have been flayed for putting college out of reach for students. Yet, for recipients of MAP grants, the net cost of college now is almost as expensive as if legislators had done so.

Of course, many students receive virtually no direct tuition assistance from the state. The rising costs of college are deeply affecting them and their families, too.

When lawmakers return next spring, they need to ask serious questions about how to bring tuition under control. Relying on the conventional wisdom of doling out more money isn’t going to work. Illinois families cannot afford a tax hike to dramatically increase government tuition subsidies. And even if they could, those subsidies could not keep pace with skyrocketing tuition and spending by state universities.

Lawmakers need to look closely at what students and taxpayers are getting for their money. When IPI and ACTA researchers examined results for the aforementioned report, they were dismayed.

Graduation rates at state universities remained flat over the review period. Students can graduate from any of the state’s universities without taking a single survey course in literature, economics or American history. And, to make matters worse, at the University of Illinois in particular, transparency was sorely lacking—making an assessment of governance at state universities unnecessarily difficult. As a result, the authors of the report could only conclude that increased costs to students and taxpayers had merely led to increased spending by state universities with little to show for it.

Illinois needs a world-class group of universities, and students of every economic background should have the opportunity to attend college.

Throughout state government, lawmakers need to rein in spending. Perhaps they should start with state universities, where students can immediately enjoy the benefits of a leaner, more efficient education system.


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