Tuition Rule Hurts Some Illinois Community Colleges

Dec 18, 2012

Rock Valley College
Credit Rock Valley College

UPDATE: Rock Valley College Trustees have rejected a $6 per credit hour tuition rate hike. But the discussion about the need for a tuition increase will continue next month.

Community colleges in Illinois sometimes face a disincentive for wanting to keep tuition rates lower. A potential law change might make things easier. But opponents of the current rules say they come with unintended consequences. Officials say the law is partly to blame for a possible rate hike at a northern Illinois school.

Rock Valley College trustees will meet Tuesday night to vote on a proposed rate hike. The plan would add $6 to the school’s tuition rate of $93 per credit hour.

Increasing costs for students is never a desirable situation for academic institutions. Rock Valley officials cite a bump in faculty salaries as part of their consideration of higher tuition next year. But they say another contributing factor is a state requirement when it comes to equalization grants, which are aimed at reducing disparities between schools and their property tax revenue.    

RVC Trustee Ted Biondo, who disagrees with the rule, says it’s pretty simple.

“Community colleges must maintain in-district tuition and fees, on a credit-hour basis, equal to 85 percent of the state average combining those two rates,” Biondo said.

The law says that if a school falls below that 85-percent threshold, it stands to lose the equalization funding.

That would not be good news for Rock Valley, which is getting more than $1 million in such grants this year. Biondo says that, with other schools poised to raise their rates, RVC has to prepare for a scenario in which the statewide average would go up, putting Rock Valley in danger of slipping below the requirement:

“I don’t think it’s fair that other colleges determine our costs,” Biondo said.

Rock Valley’s current rate ranks near the bottom. Biondo says having to raise tuition affects students in a community hard hit by the recent recession. He says middle-class students would especially feel the pinch.

Biondo says the state could at least lower the average so that schools in equalization districts wouldn’t have to worry as much about raising costs.

In fact, a bill sitting on Governor Pat Quinn’s desk would do just that. Ellen Andres is Chief Financial Officer for the Illinois Community College Board, which pushed for the bill’s approval.

“The General Assembly just passed a law that says, in order to get the equalization grant, you have to be within 70 percent of the statewide average. Or, if your students are already paying 30 percent of the total revenue, then it doesn’t matter what your tuition is. And we’re waiting for the governor to sign that,” Andres said.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Pat Quinn says he does plan to sign the measure.

Andres says the law’s original intent was to create fairness among community colleges when it came to awarding these grants.

“A long time ago, there were some colleges that never raised their tuition -- and they were very low in tuition -- and they were receiving a grant for equalization. Some districts felt that you have to do something to help yourself locally,” Andres said.

But Andres says that,  when the economy crashed, the size and frequency of tuition hikes began to go up, forcing others schools to raise their rates in order to keep pace with the requirement. She says that made them question whether 85 percent was an acceptable level.

While the law awaiting the governor’s signature would help schools like Rock Valley, Andres says she doesn’t blame them for considering rate hikes now. RVC Trustee Ted Biondo says they can’t wait any longer to vote, because pending pay raises go into effect next month. He also says that, until the governor actually signs the bill, it’s not a firm guarantee yet that his school will get any relief from the rule change.

Meanwhile, Sauk Valley Community College President George Mihel says roadblocks to funding aren’t necessary at a time when institutions are looking at more budget pain.   

“With pension reform coming on the horizon, our requirement to pick up more of those costs is going to put a further burden on funding for all the colleges,” Mihel said.

Sauk Valley’s rate is also below the state average. Like Biondo, Mihel thinks that schools receiving equalization dollars shouldn’t risk being punished for wanting to keep their tuition rates in check. For now, they’ll have to accept the law change in the hands of the governor.

Student Tuition and Fee Rates, for Community Colleges in Northern and Central Illinois

(per credit hour, Fiscal Year 2012)

Black Hawk College, Moline                                         $ 98.50

College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn                                    $132.00

Elgin Community College, Elgin                                  $ 99.00

Harper College, Palatine                                                 $118.50

Highland Community College, Freeport                 $108.00

Illinois Valley Community College, Oglesby           $ 83.52

Kishwaukee Community College, Malta                 $ 98.00

College of Lake County, Grayslake                           $109.00

McHenry County College, Crystal Lake                   $ 99.00

Rock Valley College, Rockford                                    $ 93.00

Sauk Valley Community College, Dixon                  $ 99.00

Waubonsee Community College, Sugar Grove   $100.00

State average:                                                                      $107.89

Least expensive:               Illinois Valley C.C.             $83.52

Most expensive:               Carl Sandburg College     $138.00         

*Susan Stephens contributed to this report