Students squeezed as Illinois college costs rise, aid drops

SPRINGFIELD — Joe Riddle is poised to take on the working world.

Just over a year away from graduating from a selective engineering master's program at University of Illinois, the Aurora native has a clear plan for his future.

“I really enjoy engineering,” Riddle, 22, said. “I could possibly go to a design firm and do design work for bridges and buildings.”

Riddle said Midwestern engineering firms scout graduates of his program, so his employment prospects look good. But that kind of education comes with a cost.

Riddle expects to graduate with $78,000 in student loans, a debt that could drag on his income for decades.

“Obviously, it's a big, big number to overcome,” Riddle said.

The growing cost of college is one big way that suburban students and their parents shoulder the burden of Illinois' budget woes. Public university tuition is rising, state aid for students is down and funding for alternative paths to a college education is drying up.

As Gov. Pat Quinn prepares to reveal his annual budget proposal Wednesday, he sees higher education “as one of the most important roles of state government,” said Quinn budget spokesman Abdon Pallasch.

But the state's budget hole is so deep — $9.7 billion in bills it can't pay and nearly $100 billion in pension debt — that it's hard to make much headway on university funding and college aid.

Over the past 15 years, state aid for Illinois' public universities has declined 27.6 percent when adjusted for inflation, according to a recent report.

Meanwhile, yearly tuition has continued to climb.

At the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, tuition and fees for in-state undergraduates entering this fall starts at $15,338 a year, and some science, engineering and business programs are nearly $5,000 more. Fees, books and room and board push U of I's total cost to at least $29,674 a year.

Ten years ago, students headed to the Urbana campus were looking at $7,180 in tuition and fees, so the costs have more than doubled since then. Other public universities across the state, while less expensive overall, have followed a similar trajectory.

Riddle is well above the $26,470 average debt for Illinois college students — a level that puts Illinois 15th highest in state rankings.

While tuition is rising, the state's most basic need-based scholarship program, the Monetary Award Program, or MAP, has been cut to the point that about 75 percent of eligible students' needs go unmet.

“It is a huge concern,” said state Sen. Melinda Bush, a Grayslake Democrat who serves on the Senate Higher Education Committee. “Unfortunately, until we get pensions taken care of we're going to continue to look at devastating losses like this.”

Just last week, Quinn's lieutenant governor testified at length at a hearing on college affordability.

“Some students start school and are academically able to continue but are financially not able to continue,” Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon said. “That's a real waste of resources for both the students and the state.”

Simon, a Democrat, presented to lawmakers a report she compiled highlighting ways that some of the 12 public universities have reduced their costs.

However, the cost-saving initiatives — which included textbook rental programs, three-year degree programs and offering more financial advising — have done little to rein in college costs so far.

“Even resolving the pension issue is not going to be a magic wand,” Simon said. “So we still need to work on ways that we can be most efficient with our resources.”

Despite the threat of debt, Simon argues going to college is still worth it. Her report shows the average annual salary for an Illinois worker with a bachelor's degree is more than $23,000 higher than workers who have a high school diploma but no experience at college.

Still, plenty of college seniors are finishing classes this year, worried that a tough job market might not have room for them.

Mike Theodore, a Northern Illinois University political science student from Schaumburg, said the current economic situation has made once-embarrassing living situations acceptable.

“It's no longer a really embarrassing thing to say, 'I'm graduating and I'm moving back in with my parents,'” Theodore said. “Because more people are understanding that there's really no work out there.”

Theodore said his parents and grandparents were serious about saving for college for him and his brother to keep them out of debt. But that means rising costs have hit Theodore's family at home.

Cheaper alternatives for higher education also are feeling the state budget pinch.

In 2007, mere months before the start of the recession, the University Center of Lake County finished construction on its new facility in Grayslake.

The building, largely funded with state dollars, was intended to give suburban residents access to degree programs from the state's public universities.

It's the only facility of its kind in Illinois.

But this year, the University Center is getting a mere $1.2 million from the state, nearly two-thirds less than the $3 million it got in 2009. The state's declining support led to the University Center cutting back on its only librarian and looking for ways to rent the building out for money.

No matter what Quinn proposes Wednesday, the state budget is ultimately in lawmakers' hands, and the Illinois House and Senate have already begun preliminary budget-making for the year.

There are no clear signs of relief for higher education anytime soon, and more students and families are likely to face financing ever-mounting college costs alone.

“It's something that's become the norm in our society,” Riddle said. “We all kind of have to face it together.”

Ÿ Daily Herald State Government Writer Mike Riopell contributed to this story.

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