Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The harsh truth

By Patrick O’Brien
The first round of students affected by the state’s Truth-in-Tuition law could have sticker shock when they open their bills this fall. Students at state schools with a locked-in tuition in the past are now vulnerable to a fluctuating economy because the state law does not guarantee a set tuition beyond four years unless a student’s academic program is designed for five or six years.

This spring marks the end of the first four-year group of students’ guarantee on tuition. Students returning for a fifth year of school will experience tuition hikes in the works at some state schools, and the first group of Truth-in-Tuition students can expect hefty increases as they try to finish their degrees.

The state budget picture hasn’t been rosy for higher education in the past few years. As state schools tighten their belts, they are forced to pass costs onto students.

Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, for example, first enrolled undergraduate students at $124 a credit hour in fall 2004, but it will propose that those students receive a 25 percent tuition increase starting in fall 2008 to $155 a credit hour. While this is only a proposal, the standard procedure in adopting tuition increases indicates this probably will be the size of the hike.

One reason the school is proposing such a large increase, seven times the rate of inflation, is because the first class of students were guaranteed stable tuition rates that were too low, according to Mark Wilcockson, the university’s vice president of finance and administration. Even with that 25 percent increase, this group of students at the school will pay the least in tuition at the university.

Wilcockson added that the Truth-in-Tuition law made it difficult to project costs four years ago, especially with the state’s economic picture playing such a large role in tuition increases. State aid to schools has decreased steadily since 2002, so students will feel the pinch this fall when state aid is unlikely to increase much and may actually decline.

While the Truth-in-Tuition law does take into account the rising costs of education, it does not take into account the increasing amount of time it takes to earn a degree. Students who have not finished their degrees in four years often complain about the limited availability of courses they need to finish their degree, according to Wilcockson.

Nationally, one in four students completes a degree in four years, according to Eastern Illinois University. The school has instituted a program, EIU4, which guarantees qualified students a four-year degree if they meet certain benchmarks.

As state universities continue to feel the budget crunch, however, the ability to increase course offerings — a key component in reducing the time it takes to graduate — is seriously hampered, according to Wilcockson.

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