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University of Illinois bucks trend with smallest tuition increase

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Mounting tuition hikes have increased the cost of a college education for undergraduate students at public universities across the nation, a trend that has been seen since the end of the Great Recession, and one that has not abated.

But, not for the University of Illinois, who has proposed, for the second straight year, a 1.7 percent tuition increase “for incoming freshman next fall next fall that tracks with the rate of inflation and matches the smallest increase in nearly two decades,” according to a statement released on Tuesday.

Not only, if approved, will the increase be the smallest seen in the country, it will also according to state law lock in the rates; a move first made by the state legislature in 2004 “to help students and families plan for the cost of a public university education by fixing tuition rates for the four years required to complete most undergraduate degree programs.”

Perhaps unique among public universities, the tuition adjustment was indexed “to cost-of-living indexes, and is also adjusted for inflation.

This recommendation also “matches the increase for incoming freshmen last fall – the smallest percentage increases since 1994.”

The resulting dollar figure is about $200 a year, or less on each of the University’s three campuses in Chicago, Urbana-Champaign and Springfield, Illinois.

While Illinois has been able to hold down the costs through a variety of legislative and other economic indexing, the situation for the rest of the country has been the opposite, with 4.8% increases seen about a year ago.

Why the increase?

CNN Money reported in late 2012 that “tuition hikes, stagnant growth in federal aid and increases in other expenses” increased public college costs to new heights.

Additionally, “higher dorm, cafeteria, books and other expenses added significantly to the overall increase,” according to the College Board, an organization created in 1900, “to expand access to higher education. Formed by a handful of colleges to simplify the application process for students and college admission offices, it is composed of more than 5,900 schools, colleges, universities and other educational organizations.”

And, while many students receive tuition grants, scholarships and other forms of aid, that assistance has remained flat, according to Sandy Baum, an economist and lead author of the College Board's report, said not to expect much more of an improvement. "Tuition is going to keep rising faster than inflation," she said, last year.

States have also cut the amounts of aid that they have given to colleges by a total of $15.2 billion since 2007, or 17.4% - this along with an increase in student enrollment by 12 percent.

CNN noted that “means the average public college gets a tax subsidy of only $6,600 per student, down from $9,300 just five years ago.”

Meanwhile the cost of housing and feeding students has increased according to “Vennie Gore assistant vice president for residential and hospitality services at Michigan State University and president of the Association of College and University Housing Officers -- International, says schools like his have to raise dorm costs to fund repairs, upgrade older dorms and build new residence halls that meet today's students' expectations for technology, privacy and space.”

The old dorms with their cinderblock walls and communal showers are out, and students expect and look for two rooms sharing a single bath, larger common areas and internet and cable, once thought of as luxuries and now seen “as basic necessities or utilities,” according to Gore.

And, if new dorms are not built, old ones are adapted, and rehabilitated to meet student expectations.

University of Illinois President, Robert Easter commented that the proposal was the school’s “commitment to student affordability, while maintaining the high-quality academic programs that make the U of I one of the world’s premier public research universities.”

Illinois state appropriations have also decreased, making Tuesday’s news even more notable, considering “The University’s annual direct state appropriation, which covers day-to-day operating costs, has decreased nearly 23 percent – or about $180 million – since fiscal 2002, without adjusting for the effects of inflation. Over those years, enrollment has increased about 14 percent, to more than 78,000 students last fall across the University’s three campuses”, reflecting a national trend.

“According to data from the Labor Department, the price index for college tuition grew by nearly 80 percent between August 2003 and August 2013. That is nearly twice as fast as growth in costs in medical care, another area widely recognized for fast-rising prices. It's also more than twice as fast as the overall consumer price index during that same period, noted US News and World Report last October.

While there is cause for concern, even as some state budgets are recovering, there is still wide variance among individual students, but one area that has kept up with tuition growth are the cost of textbooks, with students facing an added burden.

As Baum noted, "The real issue is that it's complicated," Baum says. "The averages hide a lot of differences both among students within individual institutions and students in different states ... [They] don't tell the story for individual students."

Follow me on Twitter @dgrantchi

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