College Tuitions on the Rise as State Funding Decreases

Tuitions at public universities have nearly tripled in the last 40 years, according to CollegeBoard data.

With President Biden announcing a Student Loan Debt Relief Plan to alleviate loan repayment for millions of people, it is worth understanding how college tuition has managed to reach an all-time high.

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Professor Jennifer Delaney from the department of Education Policy, Organization and Leadership of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign believes there are many factors that contributed to the rise in tuition.

“We’ve seen an erosion in state support for higher education over time and that puts pressure on institutions,” she said. “And unlike most other state budget categories, higher ed has the ability to raise outside revenue.”

Raising tuition would help cover the costs that states have cut, but there are reasons why the college experience has gotten more costly.

“To keep wages consistent where you can have high-quality faculty and offer high quality education, there is always going to be these inflationary pressures on institutions,” Delaney said. 

And there is no structure that regulates tuition.

Even with Illinois programs like the Monetary Award Program grants, which provide aid to low-income students, funding has run out in recent years making it difficult for its impact to reach all those who need it.

“Those low-income students who were last in line didn’t get funding,” Delaney said. “The need based program can’t keep up with the rapid increase in institutional prices,” she added.

The Illinois “Truth in Tuition” law, which freezes tuition for all Illinois college students was meant to deal with the rising cost of tuition when it was first introduced in the fall of 2004.

However, even when public universities in Illinois provided predictability in tuition, Delaney and Tyler D. Kearney found that it did not result in overall affordability. Institutions would make up the losses by raising tuition for incoming students.

“In Illinois we’ve seen that university tuition was rising from the early 2000s and plateaued in 2015,” said Lisa Castillo Richmond, executive director of The Partnership for College Completion, “but the cost of attendance has leveled off at an unsustainable high price for students.”

“Most paths to jobs that would sustain a family, jobs that enable a middle-class lifestyle, the path to those jobs goes through college,” she said.

The students disproportionately affected by these rising costs in tuition are low-income students, which tend to be students of color.

Illinois is moving to ensure the cost of attendance decreases for future students.

Last year, Gov. Pritzker allocated $122 million more to the Monetary Award Program, which brings the funds to a historic high of $601 million.

The Commission on Equitable Public University Funding will convene next year to discuss how to adequately and equitably allocate funds for public universities in Illinois.

Meanwhile, individual universities are taking the lead to ensure college affordability.  

The AIM HIGH Grant Pilot Program began in 2019, and awards top low-income Illinois students who attend in-state universities at a number of Illinois institutions. 

At the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Illinois Commitment is a financial aid package that provides significant aid to students who have a family income less than $67,100.

Javier Reyes, interim chancellor at the University of Illinois Chicago and interim vice president of the University of Illinois System, understands some students face challenges when affording a college education.

“I think that one of the things that we have to do is recognize that sometimes our retention is affected by [the] financials of our students,” Reyes said. “What we’ve done at the system level is to provide our own financial aid for students using the institutional aid that almost matches one on one with what we get from the state and federal aid level.”

Castillo Richmond believes there should be a structural shift when thinking about higher education.

“We need to make sure that we are properly funding our colleges and universities so that tuition prices remain affordable no matter what your family income is,” she said.

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