University of Illinois is no longer a Big Ten bargain

2ND IN COST | Illinois students turn elsewhere as state slashes funding

Monday, September 20, 2010

Illinois students and their parents pay more to send freshmen to the state's flagship university than all but one other Big Ten public school.

In-state freshmen at Penn State are paying marginally more -- $724 -- this school year for tuition, room and board than first-year students starting at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

There, freshmen will pay at least $23,372 for tuition, mandated fees and room and board. However, majoring in some subjects, such as engineering, can add as much as $4,728 more in tuition costs.

The cheapest school in the Big Ten for freshmen is the University of Iowa, where Iowans pay $14,828 for tuition, room and board.

The University of Illinois' ascension to one of the Big Ten's most expensive public schools comes nearly 20 years after it was lauded by Money magazine as one of the nation's top college values. In 1991, when the magazine ranked the school fifth out of 100 "best buy" colleges, in-state tuition cost $2,236. The magazine recognized Illinois as a bargain for students both in-state and out throughout the 1990s.

"When we had 50 percent of our budget supplied by the state, we were able to subsidize our students quite a bit," said Robin Kaler, university spokeswoman. "That ability is gone."

Kaler said cost was the top reason Illinois students who were admitted to the Downstate campus this year chose to attend different schools.

"Other institutions are able to offer richer financial aid to students," she said. "It's hard to keep those young men and women in Illinois."

University officials blame the rising tuition costs on state legislators, who have steadily decreased state funding to the university from a high of $802 million in fiscal year 2002 to $698 million in the current fiscal year. That's approximately the same amount the university received five years ago.

Michael Hogan, the newly installed president at U. of I., said the university is anticipating it will lose another $100 million in funding in each of the next two years.

"It used to be the joke among the university presidents where we were no longer the state-supported university, we were the state-assisted university," Hogan said. "Now we're no longer that. We're state located and heavily state regulated."

No out-of-state quota

Illinois' flagship campus this year welcomed a record number of out-of-state students, a group that made up 21 percent of incoming freshmen. The majority of these students are from other countries.

In 2006, when university officials proposed raising the number of out-of-state students from 10 percent to 15 percent of the incoming freshman class, Illinois legislators, high school counselors and parents howled. University officials quickly scrapped the plan.

Kaler said this year's higher number of out-of-state students wasn't part of a university fund-raising strategy but indicative of who accepted the university's admissions offers.

"We don't have quotas for things like this," she said.

Hogan said he was surprised that Illinois didn't have more nonresident students. Not only do out-of-state students pay more, but "it's very valuable to have a mix of people from different parts of the country as well as different parts of the world," he said.

"If I had my druthers, we would probably be closer to 35 percent" nonresident students, he said, but adding he wasn't planning on trying to increase the ratio at this time.

"We may be prepared to re-engage in that argument," he said. "What's the choice?"

In the Big Ten, Illinois has about the same percentage of nonresident students in its freshman class as Michigan State and Ohio State.

Penn State, Purdue, Indiana and Wisconsin all have approximately twice the percentage of out-of-state students -- about 40 percent -- in their incoming freshman classes. At Iowa, more than half of the freshman class comes from outside the state.

The rise of out-of-state students at state schools is part of the changing makeup of public universities, said David Shulenburger, vice president for academic affairs at the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges.

For decades, state schools recruited out-of-state students not only for the money -- they pay about three times as much tuition as residents -- but to fill schools in smaller states whose population couldn't sustain them. They also recruited out-of-state to build more diverse student bodies and as a way to help launch students into a national marketplace.

"Ensuring there are people from all over helps create national contacts," Shulenburger said. "And it helps employers to look at the university."

As states across the country continue to slash their higher-education spending, schools are starting to depend on out-of-state tuition, he said.

"What's happening more recently is the motivation has shifted to recruiting out-of-state students to support the budget of the university," he said. "I think Illinois just has relatively few choices."

The same Illinois residents who are upset that their children can't gain admission to the competitive U. of I. would also be upset if the school's quality declined because of the dwindling state support, he said.

"High quality is also important," he said. "That's the real tension right now."