Report: Tuition costs skyrocketed at public colleges amid 20 years of state disinvestment


Northeastern Illinois University faculty union president Nancy Matthews speaks to union members and other attendees at a rally outside the university’s Board of Trustees meeting on April 13. | Capitol News Illinois photo by Andrew Adams

CHICAGO — As university faculties around Illinois strike for better pay and working conditions, budget analysts have found that state spending on higher education has fallen dramatically over the past 20 years.

When adjusted for inflation, state spending on higher education fell 46 percent between 2000 and 2023, according to a new research report from the left-leaning think tank Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.

This mirrors a less extensive data analysis from the Illinois Board of Higher Education, which found that the buying power of 2021 higher ed appropriations is 55.5 percent of what it was in 2002.

“At this point, there has been such a decline and such an underfunding of the system, (the state) has essentially disinvested itself,” CTBA Associate Director for Budget and Policy Allison Flanagan told Capitol News Illinois.

In 2002, state funding accounted for approximately 72 percent of revenue for state universities, with the rest coming mostly tuition and fees. In 2021, 35.7 percent of university revenue came from the state, with 64.3 percent coming from fees, according to the report.

These effects are felt more acutely by low-income families. For families in the bottom fifth of income, tuition and fees for a 4-year public university represent at least 101 percent of that household’s income, according to the report.

One of the ways Illinois has traditionally combatted inequities in higher education accessibility is through the Monetary Award Program, which gives grants to Illinois students who demonstrate financial need. But the average amount of individual MAP grants has not kept pace with tuition.

In 2003, the average MAP grant was 47.9 percent of the average tuition and fees at a four-year university. Twenty years later, the average grant could only cover 19.4 percent of the average tuition and fees.

In recent years, however, Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration has increased funding for the program. In his latest proposed budget, Pritzker called for a $100 million increase in funding, which would represent a 75 percent increase from the year Pritzker came into office. Last year, the Illinois Student Assistance Commission, which administers the program, also approved a framework to increase the amount of each award.

Labor disputes 

The long-term changes in state university funding have at least partially led to ongoing disputes between state universities and their professors.

As of Thursday morning, faculties at Chicago State University, Governors State University and Eastern Illinois University were all on strike. Faculty at the University of Illinois Chicago struck earlier this year.

While these strikes arose from unique negotiation breakdowns on each campus, one common theme has been university administration and faculty reckoning with a changing funding situation.

Eastern Illinois University President David Glassman released a statement Tuesday characterizing the disagreements between his administration and the union.

“That the administration has many high priorities is absolutely true and all of them are important — rewarding our outstanding employees, add staffing in vital operations’ areas, rebuild campus infrastructure and keep the campus beautiful, assist our students with the high cost of a university education, and remain financially stable,” Glassman said. “There are simply not enough university funds to tackle all of these areas except through balancing the amount of dollars going to each priority.”

Unease about budgets is also stalling negotiations at Northeastern Illinois University. The university’s administration and faculty have been bargaining since last summer.

“They’re claiming that they’re in such a budget crisis that they can’t give us anything,” NEIU’s faculty union president Nancy Matthews said in an interview. “Meanwhile the last couple of years of inflation has eaten away our salaries.”

NEIU faculty voted to authorize a strike earlier this week after nine months of bargaining. The faculty’s membership voted 95 percent in favor of the strike, with 90 percent of members voting, according to Matthews.

“We don’t want to strike, but we will,” Matthews said. 

Statewide union leadership has also pointed to long-term shifts in higher education funding as a driver in these strikes.

“This is what happens when you have 20 years of disinvestment in higher education,” Illinois Federation of Teachers President Daniel Montgomery told Capitol News Illinois when CSU faculty went on strike last week.

Future funding changes 

Funding problems have attracted the attention of state lawmakers and advocates.

“There’s no doubt that universities have to contend with changing enrollment and funding,” Rep. La Shawn Ford, D-Chicago, told Capitol News Illinois.  

Ford, who chairs the House committee that oversees higher education appropriations, said wages and programs are among the things that universities should consider changing as their budgets shift.

“Are these programs actually paying for themselves?” Ford said.

Long-term, the state is in the process of considering a fundamental shift in how it funds higher education. In 2021, the state created the “Commission on Equitable Public University Funding,” a body that will recommend a new method of funding universities.

Sarah Wasik is the lead author on the CTBA report and has been a technical advisor to the commission’s work. She said the commission is working on creating a “formula” for university funding, similar in nature to the formula used for state funding of K-12 education.

“We’re in a position to not only change higher education funding in the state of Illinois, but nationally,” Wasik said, noting that there isn’t a precedent for a funding formula in public higher education. 

“I can’t wait to see the findings,” Ford said.

A recommendation from the commission is expected in July.

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