Public university tuition cap bill pending in Illinois Senate

By Ben Hellwege

Amid growing concerns about the rising cost of college, representatives in the Illinois Legislature have recently proposed a bill that would effectively cap the tuition a student pays while attending college. The bill, which passed in the Illinois House and is currently working its way through the Illinois Senate, would apply only to Illinois residents who attend a public university in Illinois.

The bill would cap student tuition by freezing tuition rates for students according to the year in which they entered. In subsequent years, affected universities would not be allowed to raise tuition costs for those students.

If passed into law, the bill would affect only students who begin their undergraduate studies after the 2003-4 academic year. The law would also apply only to the nine public universities in Illinois, including the University of Illinois and Illinois State University.

However, there are strict limits placed on the students under the law. In order to escape paying higher tuition, students must complete their degree within four years. Students would also be penalized financially if they change their concentrations to more expensive concentrations during their academic career.

? of budget crises in nearly all 50 states, public institutions of higher education found it necessary to push for some of the highest percentage increases in tuition ever,? said Steve Klass, vice president and dean of students in the University. ?Miami of Ohio has actually suggested that they begin charging the same tuition rate to their state residents as they charge to those from out of state. This would make tuition-capping legislation a pretty popular legislative opportunity for lawmakers.?

According to Klass, most American institutions of higher education are working extremely hard to control their costs, especially given the weak economy.

?The cost of doing business increases in every industry every year,? Klass said. ?I believe that tuition continue to rise above the level of inflation as it has for decades, particularly when our expenses are driven by factors.?

Among the factors that drive up costs at major research universities such as the U of C are the needs to attract and retain the finest faculty and to remain ?need-blind? in admitting students who may require financial aid. Beyond these two factors, the U of C, as a major center for scientific research, has to be able to provide modern laboratories and constantly upgraded research equipment, and to manage a substantial physical plant that requires ongoing maintenance and renovation.

?We have to continue to address the kinds of cost drivers associated with an operating budget that is primarily comprised of personnel costs?health insurance and related benefits, for example, that have been rising at a rate of 15 to 25 percent per year for the past few years and show no signs of slowing down,? Klass said. ?All these kinds of expenses will drive an increase in tuition that will outpace inflation.?

In an article published by the Northwestern Daily, State Representative Kevin Joyce, a Democrat from Chicago who first proposed the bill in the House, said a tuition cap would be even easier at private universities because they are independently operated.

In the Illinois Senate, the main proponent of the bill is state Senator Edward D. Maloney, another Chicago Democrat, who said the bill would assist students and parents planning for college expenses. ?While the expenses are still there, at least you?re going into it with some idea of the costs,? Maloney said.

But Klass maintains that simply controlling the cost of college through legislation does not address the underlying reasons why schools raise tuition in the first place.

?We do not raise tuition anywhere near as quickly as many of the costs , and I think that this nation already has an excellent system of higher education that provides an effective spectrum of post-secondary experiences along a broad continuum of price points,? Klass said.