Diverge from status quo to enhance access and affordability to college

Late January, the University’s Board of Trustees approved an increase in tuition that will push the total cost of attendance into six figures for University students starting classes next fall. 

Christophe Pierre, the University’s vice chancellor for academic affairs, claimed that the price hike will “hold down student costs, therefore enabling (the University) to improve access and affordability.” With all due respect to Mr. Pierre, if the best way to hold down costs is to raise prices, we’re suffering from a collective failure of imagination. 

Nonetheless, the Board appears to be satisfied with the price hike, since the 1.7 percent increase is pegged to the rate of inflation. In other words, the Board has merely maintained the status quo.

But before we start popping the champagne corks, does preservation of the status quo merit celebration? After all, the Board has raised our tuition rate more than 20 percent in the last five years.  

To offset the overall cost growth in recent years, the Board should have demanded nothing short of a tuition or fee freeze, if not a tuition or fee reduction.

From a generational perspective, it’s clear that any increase in tuition — even one pegged to the rate of inflation — is hard to justify. University of Illinois Trustee Patricia Holmes received her law degree from the University of Illinois in 1986, when law school tuition for in-state residents was $2,522. 

Adjusting for inflation, that would come to just $5,375 today. When Trustee James D. Montgomery Sr. graduated from our College of Law in 1956, law school tuition (including fees) was a mere $180 per year. In today’s dollars, that would be roughly $1,500. 

And yet, the current sticker price for one year at our College of Law is $41,907, including both tuition and fees. In other words, today’s price tag is more than 8 times what Ms. Holmes paid, and 27 times what Mr. Montgomery paid, even after adjusting for inflation.  

Clearly, a slower growth rate is simply not good enough. Tuition rates need to come down, so that today’s students have the same educational and economic opportunities as those who are now voting to push us deeper and deeper into debt.

Of course, the generational disparity isn’t much better for our undergraduates. When President Easter got his doctoral degree from the University of Illinois in 1976, tuition for Illinois residents was $586 per year. In today’s dollars, that would be roughly $2,400. 

When Chancellor Wise received her bachelor’s degree from Swarthmore College in 1967, tuition and fees for undergraduates at the University of Illinois was only $270 per year. In today’s dollars, that would come to come roughly $1,800.  

By contrast, next year’s incoming freshman will be paying an average yearly tuition base of $12,036 for in-staters. If we’re satisfied with a deal that’s five times worse than the one our President got, and more than six times worse than the one our Chancellor got, perhaps we’re not aiming high enough.  

The goal should not be “bending the cost curve.” The Board of Trustees, the University administration and the Illinois General Assembly should be working together to bring costs down.  

Of course, policymakers will trot out the usual canards — that higher rates of college attendance, and fewer resources available from Springfield, foreclose the possibility of giving today’s students the same square deal.  Thus, the argument goes, tuition hikes are simply unavoidable. It should be noted, however, that the University of Illinois system is currently hoarding away tens of millions of dollars in tuition reserves, amounting to nearly 34 percent of its total operating budget. 

You read that correctly. While our public universities are squirreling away mounds of tuition dollars — tuition dollars received from students going deeper and deeper into debt — they are hiking tuition rates on tomorrow’s students, who will shell out over $100,000 just for a bachelor’s degree.  

While the administration may have a valid justification for stockpiling these reserves, it does call into question the perennial claim that tuition must be raised because of the school’s dire financial straits.  

In short, the status quo should not be something we aim to maintain. The status quo is a disgrace.  

And unless students start organizing and working together to demand meaningful change, the Board of Trustees will continue patting itself on the back for a “job well done” — a job on today’s and tomorrow’s massively indebted youth.

Tony Fiorentino,

graduate student in Law and Illinois Student Senator for the College of Law

Clarification: A previous version of this guest column stated that the current sticker price for one year at the College of Law is $41,907 including tuition and fees. The guest column should have clarified that tuition for J.D. students at the College of Law will not increase in 2014-15, which is to be commended. The Daily Illini regrets the error.