The high cost of higher education

Lawmakers highlight importance of funding for universities

The Illinois Senate met June 16 to discuss the cost of college in Illinois in anticipation of sending the higher education funding bill to Gov. Bruce Rauner, who included a 30 percent cut to colleges and universities in his proposed budget – a larger cut than any other department received. Senators heard testimony from students, faculty and administrators of the higher education and student aid systems.

John Patterson, communications director for Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, said the aim of the hearing was making sure the governor understood the importance of the college funding bill they would soon be sending him.

Much of the hearing was devoted to demonstrating the impact higher education funding and in particular the Monetary Assistance Program grants had on Illinoisans’ ability to afford a college education.

James Applegate, executive director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE), said that the increasing cost of college is starting to hinder a goal the IBHE had set out in 2009 to have 60 percent of the state’s workforce with a college degree by 2020. He said that over the next five to seven years, two thirds of all the new jobs offered will require a college degree.

“If you don’t have those you will be left out of any job growth, for the most part, that occurs in Illinois,” He said.

Applegate also pointed to a study done in April by business group Ready Nation that showed that 150,000 jobs are left unfilled in Illinois because there are not enough people with the skills to do them.

Sen. Matt Murphy, R-Palatine, wanted to know what steps the universities were going to take to reduce costs. While questioning witnesses in the hearing. He pointed out that in the past decade the money taken in by the university system has increased far faster than the rate of inflation.

“When are the universities going to give these students and their parents a break?” Murphy said. “When are we going to see any sort of fiscal restraint at the university level?”

Applegate pointed to a Demos Foundation study showing that 80 percent of tuition increases in the U.S. during the first decade of this century were due to cuts in state funding for higher education. He did not, however, say that the key to making higher education more affordable was to simply fund it more.

“I can tell you that there is not enough money in Illinois or anywhere to fund us to get to where we need to be with business as usual,” he said. “We’re going to have to redesign.”

Instead, Applegate urged what he called a “both/and” strategy – both investing more in higher education and building efficiencies into the higher education system.

Eric Zarnikow, executive director of the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, said that the rising cost of college over the past decade is compounded by falling incomes for many of the people trying to put themselves or their children through college.

“Costs went up in real terms and family income went down in real terms,” he said. “That’s a very bad combination for affordability.”

Applegate said that the price of college was preventing older workers from coming back and getting a degree and that Illinois needs to lure them back into the system in order to reach its goal of 60 percent of its workforce having a college degree.

“If we don’t bring those adults back, we will never have a thriving economy in Illinois,” he said. “It’s just magical thinking to think that we can get to the level of economic growth we want at the current level of education of our workforce.”

Contact Alan Kozeluh at

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