‘Free’ tuition program at U of I raises questions about cost of higher education

SPRINGFIELD — Illinois’ flagship public university is offering free tuition for four years to qualifying in-state students, and a state senator says Illinois is playing catch up with other states.

State Sen. Chapin Rose said the University of Illinois’ program offering four years free tuition for in-state students whose family income is less than $61,000 is done mainly by combining federal Pell Grants with Illinois scholarship programs so Illinois schools can be more competitive.

He said schools in other states have been marketing similar deals utilizing federal and state grants for years.

“Murray State long ago figured out ‘hey, if I can pick up a Pell Grant and get that kid here well that kid’s here paying me a Pell Grant versus that kid not here paying it to somebody else,’ ” Rose said.

“You can see the results 20 years later,” Rose said. “There’s been a significant brain drain in this state as everybody else moved in this direction.”

A university spokesman said the cost of the program will be covered through existing university funding resources and through new philanthropic gifts made in support of the program.

Rose said the estimated costs are about $3 million. The bulk of the cost, Rose said, is covered by whatever federal and state grants were available.

But Rose said it doesn’t address the high cost of higher education. He said that’s a much bigger conversation that comes with some reckoning for the decisions the state’s public universities made years ago.

“The state of Illinois’ higher ed people, because of the empire building of these presidents, went on a spending spree and built out capacity,” Rose said. “We went from eight four-year campuses to 14 four-year campuses, OK. At the same time, we lost 50,000 students.”

Addressing that will take much more deliberation, he said.

This new U of I program is separate from the AIM HIGH scholarship program the governor signed into law last month for all public universities that matches state money with funds from universities.

U of I’s program is open to freshman and transfer students beginning fall of 2019. AIM HIGH also begins next year.


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