SPRINGFIELD | Ten years ago, the rising cost of college tuition had Illinois lawmakers searching for a solution.
On July 23, 2003, then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich signed into law the state’s landmark “truth-in-tuition” plan, freezing tuition rates for students at state universities throughout their four years of school.
“By doing this, we can help make college affordable for Illinois families,” the now-imprisoned former chief executive said at the time.
Under the measure, a four-year tuition rate would be set for each incoming freshmen class, giving students and their families clarity on how much their education was going to cost.
University officials say the law has been a success.
“I think it’s been very good for students,” said Duane Stucky, vice president for financial and administrative affairs at Southern Illinois University.
“I think it has achieved its purpose,” added Dan Lazell, vice president for finance and planning at Illinois State University.
Some critics, however, say truth-in-tuition laws are more of a populist gimmick than a way to control college costs.
“It is by no means a policy that has caught on in recent years. It forces administrators to use a crystal ball to forecast what their costs will be in four or five years. If they guess wrong, it could end up costing families more,” said Daniel J. Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
And, by Blagojevich’s measure, the law has not made college more affordable.
According to a 2010 report by the Illinois Board of Higher Education, state support for colleges and universities and student financial aid has dropped $440 million in inflation adjusted dollars over the past 15 years.
Budgets for community colleges and public universities in fiscal 2011 are at the same level of state resources as they received in 1999, the report noted.
And, in 1996, nearly 75 percent of the dollars spent by public universities came from the state. The amount has dropped to about 47 percent, meaning that student tuition now covers 53 percent of university expenses.
Since the law was enacted, tuition costs have nearly doubled at ISU and SIU. Tuition costs have risen 80 percent at Eastern Illinois University. Western Illinois University students now pay 65 percent more in tuition than they did a decade ago.
To be sure, the rise in college costs isn’t an Illinois-only problem. According to the AASCU, the average published tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities increased by 31 percent beyond the rate of inflation over the five years from 2003 to 2008, and by another 27 percent between 2008 and 2013.
“It would be better to have consistent, predictable and sustained state funding,” Hurley said.
That could be on the horizon.
In 2012, 30 states marked their climb out of the recession by increasing spending on public colleges and universities, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. That reversed five years of cuts in every state except Wyoming and North Dakota.
The average increase in state assistance to universities nationally was 3.6 percent this year. In Illinois, lawmakers and Gov. Pat Quinn managed to bump up spending by about .02 percent.
The change may be slowing the rate of tuition growth in Illinois. Eastern Illinois University, for example, is raising tuition by 1.4 percent this fall. The total cost of attendance for the 2013-2014 academic year is estimated at $24,676.
At Illinois State University, the push for higher tuition also has been scaled back this year. In the fall of 2011, trustees approved a 6-plus percent increase. The next year the increase dropped to 4.1 percent. The most recent increase was 2.1 percent.
ISU lists the total cost of attendance in the coming year at $25,214.
At SIU, trustees raised tuition by 3 percent on the Carbondale campus and 5 percent for students at Edwardsville. The university estimated the total cost of attendance at Carbondale in the 2012-13 academic year at $24,435.
Years of rapid tuition growth could be leveling off, Illinois administrators suggested.
“There’s just a limit on how much you can raise tuition,” Stucky said.
“All of us are sensitive to price points,” Lavell said.