Tuition rates rise at community colleges as state funds drop

By Jonathan Jacobson

In the last five years, Danville Area Community College has had to raise tuition by nearly 50 percent. In the same period, both Parkland College in Champaign and Oakton Community College in Skokie rose tuition rates from $54 per credit hour to $82.

Educators and administrators in the Illinois community college system attribute these tuition hikes to a decrease in state funding.

While community college remains an affordable form of education compared to the country’s increasingly expensive universities, educators and administrators in Illinois’ community college system say they are frustrated with a lack of state support for their programs.

“There was a time in the ’90s when 40 percent of our funding came from the state,” said Alice Jacobs, president of Danville Area Community College. Now, she said, that number is 31 percent.

Since Illinois’ budget crisis began a few years ago, many agencies have had to make do in the absence of state funding. But community colleges are among the hardest hit by budget cuts, said Mike Monaghan, executive director of the Illinois Community College Trustees Association.

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“About the only place to go to replace that money is to the student,” he said.

Among the $463 million cut out of the state’s budget several weeks ago was the $3 million Student Success Grant, which Monaghan said is a prime example of the effects education cutbacks are having on community colleges.

The grant would have directly assisted disabled, financially struggling and other at-risk community college students.

It has had a shaky history in Illinois: First enacted in 1970, it was abolished under Gov. George Ryan in 2002 and then restarted by Gov. Rod Blagojevich in 2007, who also recommended its elimination this year.

Justin DeJong, the communications director at the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget, blamed the Legislature, writing in an e-mail that the funds had to be eliminated in order to provide for the governor’s health care plan.

DeJong said, however, that “funding for the Illinois community colleges remains strong in the current budget,” citing a $7 million investment for veterans’ grant reimbursements to community colleges and a $750,000 investment in a new program “intended to improve students’ transitions into post-secondary education,” the Career and College Readiness Program.

On the ground, though, some community colleges say that, as a result of the loss of the Student Success Grant, they will have to cut back on programs intended to guarantee the academic success of disadvantaged students.

“They may be able to salvage some parts of the program, but most of the community colleges are telling us they will have to reduce or eliminate those kinds of services,” Monaghan said.

“It’s fair to say that it is disappointing,” said Don Sevener, deputy director of external relations at the Illinois Board of Higher Education, which sends the entire state’s higher education budget to the Legislature each year.

Sevener said that the board is highly invested in the Student Success Grant and is lobbying to reinstate it into next year’s budget. But, he said, “you can’t be sure.”

Jacobs said that the $25,000 that Danville Area Community College received from the grant was used to provide extra tutoring in math and to purchase special supportive equipment for students with disabilities.

“We may have to limit the tutoring,” she said.

Although the college is still a good buy, she said that tuition increases are definitely hurting some students.

“For independent students who don’t qualify for financial aid, it really creates a problem,” Jacobs said.

Parkland College, because of its very close association to the University, has more resources than most community colleges, but Linda Moore, the vice president of student services, said that its $86,000 allotment from the grant last year was still extremely helpful in providing for students.

Its loss, she said, will not result in the elimination of programs, but rather in cutbacks across the college.

“There’s something that has to give, but what I can’t do is say here’s exactly where it’s all coming from,” Moore said. “We’re sharing the pain.”