Illinois college students pay 49% higher tuition to prop up massive pension spending

Illinois college students pay 49% higher tuition to prop up massive pension spending

Illinois spends 27% less on higher education than it did in 2007. University pension spending grew by 510% in that time. It doesn’t take a math major to see why tuition has increased 49%.

As the oldest of seven siblings, Ethan Fazio said tuition prices and financial aid were top factors when considering higher education and whether to stay in Illinois.

“I got a whole lot of other kids behind me for my parents to get through college, so I wanted to make the most financially responsible decision for myself and for my family,” said Fazio, a junior at the University of Illinois and a Mokena native. “I am fortunate to be an Illinois commitment recipient. But it’s daunting to think about tuition continuing to increase for the next generation of students.”

Fazio said without scholarships, he’s not sure he would be in school. He thinks tuition at Illinois’ public universities has grown too fast in recent years.

An Illinois Policy Institute analysis supports that view. Tuition has increased an average of 49% at Illinois public universities in the past 15 years.

Average in-state tuition in Illinois is the fifth-most expensive in the nation, and the highest in the Midwest. Why? Public pensions are eating university resources.

State Universities Retirement System pension payments made up just 10% of state higher education spending in 2007. Now they take 49% of those dollars.

Funding for SURS pensions will grow to consume 53 cents of every dollar spent by the state on higher education in 2023.

But SURS is far from solvent: It has less than half the money it will need to meet its obligations. That pension deficit is over $25 billion, up from $7.3 billion 15 years ago.

Subtract the pension spending, and Illinois has decreased total higher education dollars by 27% in 15 years when adjusted for inflation. Meanwhile, the state has increased spending on university retirements by 510%.

That translates to roughly $800 million fewer dollars for school operations in 2022.

More money for pensions each year means fewer dollars to operate the state’s universities each year. That leaves universities either raising tuition or cutting programs and services.

“As the amount of money from the state budget began to decline, they left it up to universities as to how they would adapt to smaller appropriations,” said Illinois State University President Emeritus Larry Dietz. “Most increased tuition and/or fees rather than cut programs and services to accommodate student needs.”

Tuition and fees increased by an average of 49% since 2007 at the state's public universities.

Dietz said most state universities initially tried to keep tuition rates in the single digits. But as a larger portion of higher education funding was diverted from operations to pensions, schools had little choice.

“The truth is no one can have a good conversation about the state budget unless you begin to identify the place where the bulk of the money is spent,” Dietz said.  “That’s been pensions.”

A study conducted by the Illinois Board of Higher Education confirmed that as SURS payments increased, universities were forced to become more reliant on raising tuition and fees to maintain operational budgets.

Fazio said students face many costs in addition to the rising price of tuition and fees.

“On top of tuition, we’re paying upwards of $8,000 per year in housing costs and that doesn’t even include utilities, groceries, textbooks. I think that there needs to be a change in the system because it’s not accessible right now,” he said.

A look at the price of in-state tuition and fees at the Midwest’s most populous public universities compared to Illinois’ bears out Fazio’s suspicions. Illinois students pay 40% more on average than other Midwest students to attend their home state’s largest public university.

Even paying out-of-state tuition prices to attend the most popular universities in North Dakota, South Dakota or neighboring Missouri, Illinois students stand to save on tuition costs over the Illinois alternative.

If Illinois’ $25.4 billion university retirement pension debt continues to grow unchecked, public institutions will continue to see smaller proportions of state higher education dollars going to support students.

Instead, public universities will need to make up that difference by raising tuition and fees on students, making higher education even less accessible to the state’s lowest-income residents.

While the scholarships proposed in Illinois’ 2023 state budget will support tuition relief for some, constitutional pension reform would guarantee it for all students without harming the rightfully earned retirements of Illinois educators.

“I know that for some, talking about pension reform is a delicate conversation. I believe everybody that receives a pension deserves it,” Dietz said. “But I also think people want educational institutions to not only survive but thrive in educating students. We’ve been mainly surviving over the last two decades.”

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