Getting a college degree is one of the best investments a person can make, given that studies have found a bachelor’s degree can lead to a median $1 million more in income over a lifetime. And a degree from the University of Illinois carries with it a certain prestige, given the stellar academic programs the three schools in the system offer.
And yet, increasingly Illinois students are shunning in-state colleges. Forty-five percent of Illinois’ 2015 high school graduates who enrolled in four-year colleges left the state, according to the Illinois Board of Higher Education. In 2002, only 29 percent did so. All public universities in Illinois — except for U of I campuses in Urbana-Champaign and Chicago — had enrollment drops in the fall.
The IBHE found that the net loss of Illinois residents to other states in 2012 and 2014 was roughly 16,500 — or basically the equivalent (plus another 1,500 students) of the entire undergraduate student body of Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. They’re heading overwhelmingly to public schools in neighboring states like Indiana, Iowa, Missouri and Wisconsin, which are aggressively recruiting Illinois kids by offering good financial aid packages and the promise of stability. And once they leave, they’re not likely to return.
Higher education in Illinois has taken a beating of late, especially during the two-year budget impasse when it was starved of state aid. Illinois continues to lead the nation in population decline, as residents move to places with lower property taxes and more stable state finances. That in turn leads to fewer people paying taxes for needed services, not to mention the loss of smart people whose brain power now helps other states.
The state is never going to achieve a thriving economy unless the best and brightest kids decide to attend schools in the Land of Lincoln — and then stay put to devote their talents to creating a better Illinois.
The University of Illinois is offering a strong financial reason for high school grads to stay here for college. The system, which oversees the universities in Chicago, Springfield and Urbana-Champaign, announced Friday it wants to freeze tuition for in-state freshmen entering in the fall. If approved by the Board of Trustees it would be the fourth consecutive year the system has frozen tuition.
Since Illinois has Truth in Tuition — a 2004 law that guarantees a fixed tuition rate — if approved, those amounts will be locked in for four years. Given how fast college costs increase — the College Board says nationwide tuition and fees rose by an average of 3.1 percent at four-year public colleges and universities for the current academic year — that is a promise U of I should aggressively sell to prospective students.
Those rates would be competitive: The average tuition for four-year public colleges for 2017-18 was about $10,000, according to the College Board. The U of I is proposing keeping the tuition rates that have been in place since the 2014-15 academic year: $12,036 a year in Urbana-Champaign, $10,584 in Chicago, and $9,405 in Springfield. Of course, there’s room and board and fees to factor in too, but we note the U of I has taken steps to keep costs affordable. During the past decade, it has increased need-based financial aid more than fourfold. It said about half of undergrads pay less than full sticker price across the system’s three schools.
We are never going to get long-term improvements in the state if we can’t convince talented young Illinois residents to stay and contribute. Locking in costs as prices continue to soar elsewhere, combined with financial aid that makes college affordable, can be a compelling selling point. The U of I board should support this proposal when it meets Jan. 18.