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May 31, 2011


Report shows low-income families face widening gap in ability to pay for college

SPRINGFIELD –  Low and middle-income families, who often must stretch budgets to afford college, are finding postsecondary education increasingly out of reach in Illinois.

The second in a series of Accountability Reports on progress in achieving the goals of the Illinois Public Agenda for College and Career Success documents that families with incomes between about $18,000 and $66,000 are losing ground on a variety of measures of college affordability. On a positive note, the report showed that Illinois colleges and universities operate efficiently. Illinois community colleges and master’s level public universities in particular were significantly below the national average in the cost per degree or certificate completed. Spending per completion was larger in most of Illinois’ benchmarks states - California, New York, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, and Wisconsin.  

The Accountability Report on Goal 2 of the Illinois Public Agenda will be discussed by the Illinois Board of Higher Education at its bimonthly meeting June 7 at St. Augustine College in Chicago.

“College affordability is clearly a crucial issue for students and families, and it is for the state as well. If college access is beyond the financial reach of many Illinoisans, the state cannot hope to meet its goal of raising educational attainment,” Carrie J. Hightman, Chairwoman of the IBHE, said. “Although this Accountability Report is disappointing in its findings, it should serve as a wakeup call to our elected officials and policymakers that we must redouble our efforts to ensure that finances are not a barrier to any qualified student who wishes to pursue higher education in Illinois.” Affordability is especially important for low and middle income families who are often considered to be at-risk of not completing college.    

The Accountability Report offers snapshots of certain performance metrics from two different years – 2008, the “baseline” year when the Public Agenda was adopted by the IBHE, and a performance update with 2010 data. There is ample room for improvement.  For example:

  • Illinois ranks at the bottom of states when measuring the ability of low-income families to afford the net cost of attending a four-year public institution. In 2008, it took about 62% of a low-income family’s income to cover the net cost (the cost minus financial aid) at a public university. In 2010, it took 77%. For middle income families, the percent of personal income needed to pay for a four-year public institution rose from less than 32% to 34.5%.
  • At two-year public colleges, the decline in affordability is less drastic but still notable. Illinois ranks 29th in the ability of middle-income families to afford a community college; 32nd for low-income families.
  • In 2008, Illinois was at about the national average in loan debt per student (figures for 2010 are not yet available). However, among neighboring states, only Iowa had a  average student debt higher than Illinois’ $6,077.

However, an equally telling statistic revealed in the Accountability Report is state and local support for higher education per full-time equivalent (FTE) student. In 2010, Illinois fared better than the national average in the proportion of total resources for higher education that were covered by state and local funding – $7,777 per FTE in Illinois versus $6,904 nationally. But that percentage has slipped in the past two years – down from 70.4% of total resources from state and local sources in 2008 to 68.8% in 2010. As the proportion of total resources from state and local sources declines, the proportion from tuition and student fees rises.

 “This is valuable information for us as a Board and for other state leaders to have,” Chairwoman Hightman said. “We have laid the groundwork for improvements in affordability with passage of performance funding legislation. We must now build on that success with other strategies proposed in the Public Agenda and in collaboration with our sister state agencies and colleges and universities.”


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