College Out of Reach: Tuition Doubled Over Last Decade at Illinois Public Universities

Parents want their children to have and achieve more than they were able to accomplish.

For many Americans, that means getting a college degree.

A college diploma is supposed to put a person on a path - education equals job opportunities. But rising tuition costs have turned that equation on its head. Now, for too many students, graduating from college equals thousands of dollars in crushing student-loan debt with little to show for it.

American students and graduates are carrying $1.3 trillion in student-loan debt. And while some may be getting a return on their investment, a 2013 McKinsey & Co. study found 42 percent of recent college graduates are currently in jobs that do not require four-year degrees.

So why do costs keep rising, especially at public schools?

Illinois offers a particularly telling case study. In the Land of Lincoln, public- university tuition doubled over the last decade.

Federal and state student loans and grants that were intended to make college affordable for everyone have had the opposite effect: Irresponsible officials are using this influx of guaranteed money to hire more administrators and spend more on salaries and benefits - not to invest in education and keep costs low for students.

At Illinois' public universities, more state money flows to retirements than to classrooms and operations. While pension costs made up 20 percent of the budget just 10 years ago, 53 percent of the state's $4.1 billion higher-education budget now goes toward funding employee pensions.

That percentage jumped so high in large part because public universities have been on an unsustainable administrator-hiring spree. According to the Illinois state Senate Democratic Caucus' report, colleges and universities are hiring administrators at a much higher rate than they're hiring professors: "The disproportionate increase in the number of employees hired by colleges and universities to manage or administer people, programs and regulations has continued unabated in recent years, increasing 50% faster than the number of instructors between 2001 and 2011."

The result? Incredible growth in tuition costs.

Annual tuition and fees at Northeastern Illinois University, located on the northwest side of Chicago, cost a student $6,306 in 2006. Now, just 10 years later, tuition and fees at NEIU cost more than double: $13,374.

Students at the University of Illinois-Springfield have also seen annual tuition-and-fee costs more than double: to $12,411 in 2016 from $5,965 in 2006.

Illinois public schools are far more expensive than the national average - in-state tuition and fees at four-year public institutions across the U.S. was $8,893 for the 2013-2014 school year.

It's clear that Illinois' public higher-education system has lost sight of an important goal: keeping college affordable. While low-income students at schools like Chicago State University rely on grants from the state to be able to afford college, administrators at those schools continue to enjoy full salaries and full pensions - funded entirely by state taxpayers.

Here's the breakdown: As Illinois remains entangled in budget gridlock, universities and students are waiting on $2 billion in state funding for operations and student grants. Illinois' lack of a state budget has highlighted just how unaffordable public university has become, as this lack of grant funding means the difference between being able to attend school and dropping out for many low-income students.

Meanwhile, more than 50 percent of the state's 2,465 university administrators had a base salary of $100,000 or more in 2015, according to the Illinois Board of Higher Education. Paula Allen-Meares, who served from 2009-2015 as chancellor of the University of Illinois at Chicago, made $887,244 in 2014 - that includes her base salary, as well as bonuses and additional compensation worth more than her salary. Allen-Meares' salary and bonus payouts would've covered 329 MAP grants for low-income students.

University officials and leadership have a very important job, and that's to be good stewards of their school's resources. Pouring money into bloated administrations not only ensures that resources will be diverted away from the classroom in the short term - at public universities, it also ensures that long-term costs will increase exponentially.