State receives low grade in affordability

By Hetal Bhatt

The state of Illinois was given a near-failing grade in its ability to provide affordable education to state university students.

The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education issued its national report card last month, rating states in five different categories related to their state universities. Although Illinois scored “B’s” in categories such as high school preparation for college and even one “A” in its percentage of young adults enrolled in college, it received a “D” in affordability. The “D” was a dramatic drop for Illinois from its “B” on the last report card issued by the center in 2002.

“It’s a disturbing trend,” said Don Sevener, spokesman for the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE). “It’s disappointing that we have dropped so much in affordability this year because Illinois has always had a proud tradition of outstanding affordability in its universities.”

According to the National Center’s Web site, Illinois’ affordability was given a “D” because of a widening gap between the amount of money that families can pay for their children to attend college and the amount of financial aid that the state is able to provide them. The result is a severe deficiency in the state financial aid funds, which leaves many eligible families in the dark about how they’re going to pay for their children’s education.

Orlo Austin, University director of financial aid, said that with recent economic problems and budget cuts across the board, an imbalance between students’ checkbooks and the price tags they’re being faced with is only natural.

“It’s no secret that educational costs have gone up faster than financial aid has gone up in the state of Illinois,” he said. “In the last four years, the maximum state grant has actually gone down by $400 and educational costs have increased by $3,300.”

Lori Reimer, spokeswoman for the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, which provides financial aid to eligible students, said tuition costs for Illinois universities have shot up nearly 40 percent over the last five years.

“Five years ago, the average tuition fee was $4,160, and last year it was $5,785,” she said. “And that’s just tuition. Other costs like room and board and books have increased substantially as well, and we just haven’t been able to keep pace with those rising costs.”

Students who are paying for their own expenses have already started to feel the impact of skyrocketing costs but still are determined to meet the price.

“The bills are higher, obviously, but eventually you find a way to pay for it,” said Jon Elugbadebo, sophomore in LAS.

Lamark Ferguson, freshman in LAS, elaborated on the toils of paying rising costs at the University.

“When you’re paying for all your tuition, it can be real hard because all the burden is on your shoulders,” he said. “I’m definitely going to have to work one or two jobs in the summer in order to get enough money to pay off next year’s expenses.”

Realizing that many students like Ferguson are straining to pay for their tuition, Sevener and Austin said they are not going to concede to the economic turbulence that is driving up higher education costs. Sevener readily described the new attention that Illinois’ dropping rate of affordability has received at the IBHE.

“We at the IBHE will give improving affordability top priority when it comes time to put together the budget for next year,” he said.

In similar spirits, Austin said that, despite severe budget cuts to its financial aid system, the University has already set aside about $8 million to dispense in financial aid.

However, Ferguson said he has encountered difficulties with the University’s evaporating financial aid funds.

“It’s hard enough trying to pay for college myself, but it’s even harder when the financial aid doesn’t come in on time or at all,” he said. “They definitely need to get their act together and cut the checks.”

Along with the current struggles that students are facing to pay the bills, projections for improvement in the future have remained uncertain, at best.

“There’s really no way of foreseeing whether or not this trend will continue because we have no way of knowing what the economy or state government’s revenues will be like,” Sevener said.