U of I poised to freeze tuition for incoming freshmen

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The cost of tuition for in-state students at Purdue University has been frozen since 2012. It’s the same for students across Iowa, where annual costs have been locked in for two years. Ditto at the University of Wisconsin.

Now the University of Illinois, citing the need to compete with its peers, is looking to do the same, school officials announced Monday.

The university system’s board of trustees will vote next week on a proposal that would freeze tuition for in-state members of next year’s incoming freshman class at Urbana-Champaign, Springfield and Chicago campuses.

If the freeze is approved, it will be the first time in over 20 years that tuition did not increase for an incoming class of in-state students. However, the rest of the student body will not be so lucky. Future students might not benefit either, if the trustees don’t extend the freeze beyond next year.

Under the plan, students at Champaign-Urbana campus would pay $12,036 a year ($25,782 with room, board and fees added); students at the Chicago campus would pay $10,584 ($25,106 with room, board and fees); and students at the Springfield campus would pay $9,405 ($22,845 with room, board and fees).

In a tough market, where consumers are weary from over a decade of soaring tuition costs, colleges have to look at affordability, university spokesman Tom Hardy said. The school wants to stem the tide of students going out of state for school.

“Some families don’t feel that they can pay, even though we’ve managed to maintain a exceptional education product,” Hardy said. “It is a competitive market . . . We’re the second-biggest exporter of [college] students after the state of New Jersey.”

Industry analysts say tuition freezes are a nationwide trend — especially among publicly funded universities. Even at institutions where freezes aren’t in place, tuition isn’t climbing by any more than 2 percent.

But while parents and students may rejoice at such news, it could ultimately lead to a drop in the quality of education.

The trend of using tuition increases to offset diminishing state funding dates back over a decade. But it kicked into high gear when the recession hit, Hardy said.

That’s because state budgets were awash in recession red ink.

“They began cutting the appropriations to the higher education institutions. And then the universities began pushing through larger tuition increases — some rather dramatic,” said Susan Fitzgerald, an analyst for Moody’s Investor Services, who pointed to Cal State hiking tuition by 30 percent in one year as an example.

Since then, schools have tried to make higher education more affordable — without state funding to pay for it.

As schools increasingly compete, that could set up a “race to the bottom” in higher education, said Diane Viacava, a fellow Moody’s analyst who specializes in Big Ten schools. She credited Purdue president Mitch Daniels, a former Indiana governor, with pioneering the trend locally.

“It definitely is an issue they do have to face,” Viacava said. “But it is trying to cope with the competitive environment. Universities have been very, very aggressively managing their increases.”

When asked if the school officials were worried about a race to the bottom, U of I spokesman Jan Dennis said: “No.”

“They have looked closely at the whole situation and determine they can [freeze] at least this year for in-state tuition without sacrificing quality,” Dennis said.

The freeze does “raise eyebrows” Viacava said. But a flagship school such as the University of Illinois is a destination college that can partially offset the cost with higher tuition paid by out-of-state and graduate students. Large schools also draw more fundraising dollars from private donors, she said.

“Where we see these types of program having the most pressure [on a school] is at the regional campuses, where they don’t have significant out-of-state draw or have a professional or graduate program,” Viacava said.

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