UI drops 22 spots on ’50 Best Values in Public Colleges’ list

By Jonathan Wroble

Typically, landing a spot as one of the “50 Best Values in Public Colleges” is an accomplishment for any school. This year, however, the announcement was a mixture of good and bad news for the University.

Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Magazine, which rates each individual institution, ranked the University as number 30 on its 2007 list. That’s a drop of 22 places from just a year ago.

Jane Bennett Clark, associate editor for Kiplinger’s, attributed the University’s 22-spot fall to “raising tuition and halving need-based aid.” Still, the causes of tuition increase shed more light on the situation.

“State growth has not been as high as in the 90s,” said Terry McLennand, assistant director of state relations in the Office of Governmental Relations. “We have to protect the quality of education at the University, … which I think we have done an unbelievable job of over the last five years.”

Since the turn of the century, state funding cuts have undeniably factored into the cost of higher education. According to the College Board, tuition and fees at four-year public institutions have grown by 35 percent since 2001 – mainly due to smaller state funds and larger utility costs.

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At the University, the last high-water mark for state funding came in fiscal year 2002, when the state approved a budget of $805 million. In the current fiscal year, that number is just less than $713 million.

Normally, this money goes towards paying employees and maintaining operations. But as those expenses rise and state funds don’t, the burden falls on tuition to sustain the University’s scholastic reputation.

“If we had the bargain (tuition) rate of a few years ago, I am not as confident that we could hold the line on our tradition of excellence,” McLennand said. “Tuition dollars have to do more to protect academic programs.”

The recent enactment of the truth-in-tuition law in Illinois also influences tuition hikes. The law, which took effect in fall 2004, holds a student’s tuition rate constant for all four years at the University.

“We have to anticipate what costs will be,” McLennand said. “So (a student) might pay a little more than he should as a freshman, but a little less than he should as a senior.”

Nationwide, such tuition increases are smaller than in years past. At four-year public colleges, this year’s average rise in tuition is 6.3 percent, which translates into an extra $344 per student. The average tuition and fees rate is $5,836, about $4,000 less than the University’s fall 2006 rate of $9,882.

“The real crunch in public-college costs that existed for a couple of years has let up,” said Sandy Baum, senior policy analyst for the College Board, to Kiplinger’s. “Increases in tuition and fees are lower.”

As for financial aid, McLennand said that “the ability to pay will not be a barrier to any student.” The University reports that 100 percent of eligible students receive need-based aid, despite the related Kiplinger’s statistic of only 90 percent.

The University is the fourth largest public institution on the Kiplinger’s list. Nine schools ahead of the University also rank higher on the 2007 U.S. News list of America’s best colleges.