Friday, March 07, 2008

Passing the buck

by Patrick O’Brien
The State of Illinois is passing the buck on veterans’ tuition grants to universities, according to testimony at a House committee Thursday. Schools whose bottom lines already suffer from years of reduced funding are being forced to bear the cost of an unfunded mandate, said Rep. David Miller, a Lynwood Democrat and committee chair. That results in higher tuition rates for students as schools try to cover the costs of educating veterans.

A state grant pays for tuition and certain fees at Illinois schools for men and women who have been on active military duty for at least a year. Schools provide waivers for the veterans to attend, and the state reimburses the institution. But the problem is, the grant money often runs out, forcing universities to make up the difference.

State universities are facing a combined shortfall of $22 million because of an increasing number of veterans attending college and the lack of funding from the state, Miller said. The program’s costs have more than doubled in five years. “Instead of being a taxpayer issue, it’s become a user tax on students.”

The Illinois Board of Higher Education reports that the program, the Illinois Veterans Tuition Grant, was budgeted at a little more than $19 million this year. State schools have received $18 million so far.

The program has been budgeted at $19 million since 2004, while the number of veterans returning from active duty continues to increase. The Illinois Student Assistance Commission reports that the deficit has been a problem since at least 2004, when the state was $5 million short on payments for the grant.

The Illinois Board of Higher Education said the program would receive no extra money next year, making six consecutive budget cycles without an increase for the program.

University of Illinois president B. Joseph White said a lack of funding from the state will cost the school $4 million this year to cover the program, even after state money is figured in. Illinois State University president Al Bowman told the committee his school lost $600,000 in tuition that the state didn’t reimburse in 2007, and that number will increase to $1 million this year.

One university official laid the responsibility at the feet of Gov. Rod Blagojevich. “It’s the law, but the governor was supposed to provide funding,” said Cheryl Peck, spokeswoman for the University of Illinois at Springfield. Peck said the university took $490,000 from other areas of the budget this year to ensure that veterans’ tuitions are covered.

Like most state institutions in a tough budget year, higher education is feeling the squeeze.

The proposed state budget leaves funding flat for state schools, which actually decreases their funding, according to Rep. Rich Brauer, a Petersburg Republican. Brauer said the 3 percent to 4 percent increase in costs due to inflation will give the schools less money to work with and that most state universities already receive less money than in 2002.

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