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U. of I. tuition freeze both good news and grim

The University of Illinois has proposed a tuition freeze next year for in-state freshmen.

EDITORIAL

It’s about time. Tuition has soared at the U. of I. over the last decade, greatly outpacing increases at other public universities, including the U. of I.’s Midwest peers.

But let’s understand something more. This is, in all other ways, grim news. Tuition hikes — along with careful cost cutting — have allowed Illinois’ flagship university to maintain standards at a time when the state Legislature has steadily chipped away at support for higher education. And we see no sign the Legislature is about to stop chipping now.

On the contrary, Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner’s transition team has asked each state university to presents plans for coping with yet deeper cuts in state funding.

This does not bode well for the quality of public higher education in Illinois.

The tuition freeze, in itself, makes good sense. Tuition at the U. of I. has risen so high — 71 percent in 10 years — that many middle class families no longer can afford to send their kids to the best public university in their own home state. They don’t qualify for financial aid because their incomes aren’t low enough. So they’re sending their kids out of state to institutions where tuition is more reasonable and financial help more available.

Today, more students turn down an offer of admission to the U. of I. than decide to go there. The cohort of in-state freshmen at the university is down to 71 percent, a record low.

Of the 14 schools in the Big 10, only Penn State has higher in-state tuition and fees. Middle class families can scrimp and save for years and still never come close to pulling together the $100,000-plus needed for four years at the U. of I.

Illinois is not alone. State governments across the nation are turning their back on public higher education.

In the 1970s, state governments picked up 75 percent of the tab for public higher education, according to Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland data. Now, though, the states have stuck students and their families with much more of the bill, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report. In Illinois, public universities get about $643 million a year from the state — and a whopping $1.1 billion from tuition and fees. Ouch.

As costs have gone up, students and their families have turned to student loans. That has created an army of graduates crippled by huge debt, which has not been great for the economy.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the share of people under 30 who own private businesses has fallen to a 24-year low. A U.S. Small Business Administration analysis in November found that entrepreneurs younger than 40 who had student debt applied for fewer business loans and hired fewer employees.

Yet, the amount of outstanding student debt keeps piling up. It rose 9.6 percent in the third quarter of 2014 compared with the same period a year earlier, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported recently.

The University of Illinois’ tuition freeze reportedly has the blessing of the university’s 20th president, Timothy L. Killeen, who comes on board in July. It shows that the university, at least, is aware tuition can’t keep spiraling up. Under the guaranteed-tuition policy, the freeze will be good for four years for incoming freshmen.

But in Springfield, where the job of meeting basic state expenses just got even tougher with the expiration of a temporary tax increase, there is talk of budgeting even less money for higher education.

If that happens, the University of Illinois’ welcome tuition freeze will melt in a hurry.

And, before all too long, our state’s flagship university could be sailing at half mast.