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U. of I. pledges free tuition to students in families earning less than $61K

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign | U. of I.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is pledging four years of free tuition to admitted students from families that earn less than $61,000 a year.

The “Illinois Commitment” program, which is tied to the state’s median income, will make tuition at the university free for about half of families who live in Illinois. The program will kick off in the 2019-2020 school year.

University leaders hope it will put the school in a better position to compete for Illinois’ high school graduates, who have left the state in increasing numbers over the last decade.

According to numbers collected by the federal government, Illinois lost just under 20,000 students to net out-migration in 2016.

“[This] is going to allow us to be more competitive against our peer institutions. We know by now that a lot of our peers are mainly coming into Chicago and other populated areas across the state and [are] offering resident tuition and scholarships on top of it,” UIUC chancellor Robert Jones said.

The university expects the program will cost $16 million a year once it is fully implemented –– $4 million for each class of eligible students.

This pales in comparison to the $872 million in financial aid its students received for the 2017-2018 school year.

But the program is as much an exercise in psychology as accounting. It’s designed to give students from relatively low-income families confidence that they won’t have to pay the university in-state tuition and fees –– which range from $16,000 to $21,000, depending on the program. That will hopefully prompt them to apply, officials said.

“We believe that in far too many cases some of the most qualified students don’t even take a serious look at this university … because of the general optics around the cost of attending,” Jones said. “Therefore, they don’t really fill out the FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid]. They don’t really try to do the sort of analysis that’s necessary to figure out the cost of attendance. So hopefully, by framing this as free tuition, they don’t have to go through those calculations.”

The program will not cover room and board, books, or other costs –– a sum that UIUC estimates at more than $15,000 this year, although financial aid can cover some or all of those costs for students who qualify.

New students will be covered by the program for eight semesters, provided their family incomes do not increase during that time to too far above the program’s $61,000 cut-off. The family income requirement includes taxed and untaxed income.

The university froze its tuition in 2015, but the freeze came after the cost of an undergraduate tuition increased by 71 percent from 2005 to 2015.

The school’s announcement comes days after Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a bill creating a $25-million merit scholarship fund.

This merit-based aid will give Illinois the ability to compete for better-off students as well, Jones said.