Column: Why ‘truthiness’ in tuition is problematic

By Andrew Mason

Good news my fellow Illini: We’ve defeated Michigan! No, not in football or basketball (yet) but where it really counts: our wallets. USA Today released its annual survey of tuition rates across the top 75 flagship colleges last week and the results are in. In-state students pay more to go to this university than any other in the Big 10 and in the entire Midwest.

Our triumph over Michigan can be attributed to the 14.5 percent increase over last year’s rates. We come in second place in that regard behind, wait for it – Hawaii, Menoa.

This school came in fifth place overall edging out UMich at Ann Arbor by a decisive $159. For a full years’ tuition, not including books, room and board, this year’s freshman will be paying a cool $9,882. The median in-state cost among the schools included in this study was only $5,838. So why are students on this campus paying nearly twice this number?

The long answer is well, long. The short answer is “because we let them.” Consider for a moment the state of the state. Illinois reported a $3 billion deficit for fiscal 2005. That’s billion, with a B. It is one of five states in the country that did not have a budget surplus.

The Truth-in-Tuition Act of 2003, or what I like to call the “Truthiness” Act, was hailed a step forward in the ever-popular struggle to save the middle class. What it is is a thinly veiled waltz that is bound to lead to disappointment and unmet expectations.

Blagojevich’s “Truthiness” Act guaranteed that a new student would pay the same rates in his senior year as he did in his freshman year. But what it did was pass the buck onward and downward. Instead of addressing the real problem of decreased state funding, this feel good Band-Aid allowed legislators to merely delay the inevitable.

Under the traditional funding model, a school would increase rates for everyone on campus, thus distributing the pain equally. Under this law, the University (facing still unmet needs) has no choice but to impose much larger increases on roughly 25 percent of students each successive year. As a result in-state rates have climbed by 58.3 percent since the 2002-2003 school year.

This act forces the trustees to put a heavier burden on new freshman or a heavier faith in the state legislature. The former is unfair and the latter is notoriously foolhardy.

The unpleasant reality is that tuition is rising ever higher at a break-neck pace. But not for me. And most likely, not for you, either, unless you happen to be a senior. This act allowed those like you and me to get into the system while rates were comparatively lower. It is true that out-of-state rates for neighboring colleges are currently still no competition for staying in-state for good ol’ Illinois. But for how much longer?

Facing hundreds of millions of dollars in delayed maintenance, this University is looking at a ticking time bomb. In short, it has little choice but to punish the young for the mistakes of the old.

But we have a choice. Our lack of criticism and abundance of apathy make the average young adult an easy target for a politician looking for a quick fix. Put simply, we do not vote so we get marginalized. And it is not just us, it will be our younger siblings and our children. The “Truthiness” Act was passed as a way to placate the masses. In the absence of principled financial responsibility, we were hoodwinked into supporting it. In the rush to save our own monentary skins, we worshipped at the altar of “me.” “It isn’t my problem,” said that voice in our heads. “It’s those kids that come after us that will have to take it in the gut.”

It is an election year, so of course, we will clap when Topinka or Blagojevich mention a brand new education plan. But what about some accountability for the old education plan? Years of tuition hikes and cuts in state aid are not just in our past and present. They look to be in store for the future.