State law allows employees who have worked for one of the Illinois’ public universities for seven or more years to receive a 50 percent waiver of their children’s tuition costs.
Employees would lose that benefit if legislation (HB 4706) introduced earlier this month by state Rep. Dave Winters, R-Rockford, is eventually signed into law.
“I think a lot of the universities have been using this as part of their compensation package,” said state Rep. Naomi Jakobsson, D-Urbana. “Taking away a part of their offer is not something I can support.”
Randy Kangas, director of the UI system’s office for planning and budgeting, said 942 of these tuition waivers were issued in fiscal 2009, totaling $3,981,600 of revenue the university never realized.
Most of those, 722 waivers, were issued for students at the Urbana-Champaign campus, erasing $3,254,800 that would have been added to the campus’ budget.
UI officials are saying they will need time to discuss the bill with state representatives before they develop any particular position.
Some universities (public ones and private ones) offer tuition waivers to family members of their employees. Where they are offered, tuition waivers are a part of the compensation package that is usually meant to be a counterweight to a salary that is lower than one might have liked. Health insurance and pensions (where they exist) work this way, too. If the benefit is not offered as part of the compensation package, the potential hire might (or should) sit down and calculate what those additional costs (to buy insurance, save for retirement, pay for a child’s college education) will be, and whether it is plausible to cover them on the salary being offered.
Tuition waivers may not be a big deal for potential employees who have no children (and have no intention of having children), but for those who do, they may be part of the calculation of whether one offer of employment is better or worse than another. They might also be a data point in sussing out whether a university is a family friendly work environment.
Of course, tuition is money into a university’s coffers, which means you can view tuition waivers as lost money (as apparently Rep. Winters is wont to do). But I think it’s a fair question whether the 942 children of University of Illinois employees would have paid any tuition to the University of Illinois without the waivers. Without a 50% break on the tuition, they might have taken their educational dollars to other colleges, which would have been a loss of $3,981,600 in revenue for the university.
Maybe other students are clamoring to fill those slots at the full-tuition rate. Maybe those 942 children of University of Illinois employees weren’t adding anything special to the student population or the classroom environment. I’m guessing someone at the University of Illinois system has some data on each of these issues, though, and I reckon that it might be worth taking it into account when setting policy, given that there are lots of ways to save money and really throw things into disarray as a result.
And if those 50% tuition waivers make employees’ kids leeches on the system, perhaps there are other leeches the people of Illinois might shake loose:
Jakobsson said there might be a better way if it is a budget issue.
“If we stop giving legislative scholarships, it would add more than” the $4 million, Jakobsson said.
Every year, each of the state’s 177 legislators are permitted to issue up to eight years’ worth of full tuition waivers to students wishing to attend any of the state’s universities. The only prerequisite is that the student live in the legislator’s district.
The program has drawn scrutiny over the years – from The News-Gazette and other news organizations – after some legislators were found to have been giving the scholarships to children of political contributors. A bill introduced by Jakobsson to kill the program was defeated in 2003.
Let’s see, 177 times 8 is 1416 student-years of full tuition. Compare that to the 942 waivers issued in fiscal 2009 to children of university employees, each good for 50% tuition, for 471 student-years. That’s less than half the financial impact of the legislator-issued tuitions.
Would the Illinois legislature risk losing its best state representatives if the ability to give scholarships to the children of political contributors were not part of the legislature’s “compensation package”?
Would it be a bad thing if they did?
As might be expected, some folks at the university seem to have an understanding of tuition waivers that’s more nuanced than just seeing them as a line in the budget:
UI spokesman Tom Hardy said the tuition waiver is an important tool to recruit and retain faculty and staff. And the financial relief is a tool to keep students in Illinois.
“It’s an incentive to keep bright students in state to go to college,” Hardy said. “And we know that typically where people go to college and graduate from, they tend to stay there.”
I think Hardy’s comments suggest some questions that legislatures and the people they represent (voters, tax payers, citizens of a state) would do well to ask when in the heat of a budget crisis:
What might it cost us down the road to eliminate this piece of spending? Do we want to cut our budget to the point that we can’t attract the best candidates to fill faculty and staff jobs at our state’s public universities? Are we confident that the education we’re able to provide under those conditions will be what we owe our state’s children — or that it will provide the skilled workforce that will attract employers to the state or keep them here? Are we OK letting lots of our state’s best high school graduates flee the state for their college education, knowing that this decreases the chances that they will return to become part of our workforce or tax base? Were Illinois high school teachers really busting their butts to make things better for the state of Massachusetts?
None of these budgets in crisis come down to simple balancing acts. There are lots of moving parts, connected in complex ways. I think it might benefit the legislators who are struggling to fix their budgets to spend some time talking with the people who know about downstream effects of particular pieces of spending. Undoubtedly there will be pain, but shortsighted cuts can result in a lot of pain that’s self-inflicted.