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'Free Tuition’ Is Now A Reality For Many U of I Students

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‘Free Tuition’ Is Now A Reality For Many U of I Students

Robert Jones, chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, stops by the Morning Shift on July 9, 2019.

Jason Marck

Starting with the 2019-2020 academic year, incoming students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign whose families earn less than $61,000 per year will not have to pay tuition.

The new program — called Illinois Commitment — applies to in-state students below the age of 24 starting as freshmen or transfer students. To qualify, students must have attended a high school in the state, and their family’s total assets must be $50,000 or less.

Morning Shift checks in with the school’s chancellor to hear about why he’s promoting “free tuition” and other initiatives at the university.

Why free tuition, and why now?

Robert Jones: Free tuition is a part of our commitment as a public land-grant university to keep education accessible and affordable. And over the course of the last couple of years, we came to realize that a large number of students, residents of the state of Illinois, weren’t considering even applying to the University of Illinois because of the optics surrounding the tuition.

And so, we wanted to take that away as a consideration for our students, and we came up with the strategy of the Illinois Commitment for any student … with a family income of $61,000 or less, if they get admission to the university, can attend tuition and fees free for four years, as well as transfer students [who] can transfer in for two years under that same program.

Jenn White: And what is the cost of tuition right now at U of I?

Jones: Well, it depends on the degree program. But, on average, tuition runs about $15,000 to $16,000 a year depending upon the program.

White: How did you come to that $61,000 threshold for family income?

Jones: Well, it’s based on the median income for families across the state of Illinois.

On whether or not the program will be extended to other regional campuses

Jones: Well, it’s Urbana-Champaign’s idea as part of our commitment. The University of Illinois System has three campuses, including the one here in Chicago and one in Springfield. And so, Chicago has its own version of this. Springfield — it’s not something that they are apparently entertaining at this time. But with the University of Illinois being the flagship campus of the University of Illinois system — and we educate more than 50% of the Illinois residents that go on to college — we felt we needed to do our part to make sure an Illinois education was accessible and affordable to a broader number of Illinois residents.

White: I’m curious how you first became aware of that price barrier for kids thinking about college, for their families thinking about, ‘How do we pay for this?’

Jones: It’s one of the most fundamental issues that we hear about as we do our analysis and we go around the state and we ask questions about affordability. You look at the issue of the number of Illinois residents who pursue educational opportunities outside of the state of Illinois. … just for example, we admit more than 12- to 15,000 African American students here from the city of Chicago, and it’s very, very difficult to get them to even accept our offer sometimes after they’ve been admitted.

And so as we began to gather that data, that information and that feedback, it became very clear that sticker price was a problem — so much so that a large number of people across socioeconomic backgrounds, across the entire state … were not applying to this great university because they assumed they wouldn’t get in … but perhaps more importantly and critically, they assumed they couldn’t afford it.

On other factors, details of the “Illinois Commitment”

White: So the program covers tuition but not the cost of room and board.

Jones: It covers tuition and mandatory fees, but it does not cover the full costs of housing and food and books. But these students, because of their profile, will have access to other funding sources that will actually minimize the total out-of-pocket expenditure that they would have to pay in order to pursue and complete a four-year degree.

White: So beyond the financial piece of the calculation of who can take advantage of this program, what are some of the other considerations that go into whether or not a student is able to get free tuition?

Jones: Family income is the biggest factor when we look at that. A big factor is how much Pell [Grant] support they’re going to get from the feds, how much support from the monetary award program from the state and now another additional component that was added last year that really has been increased, thanks to the governor and the legislature, is the Aim High program.

So there are multiple sources of funds that come together, and the university has taken the responsibility to backfield so that there is basically no out-of-pocket costs for families for tuition and fees.

White: Now, DACA students and undocumented students are not eligible to receive the free tuition. How did you come to that decision?

Jones: It's pretty much in alignment with federal guidelines regarding what funds DACA students are eligible for. As you all know, they're not eligible for a lot of the federal financial aid. I'm very excited and pleased with some of the efforts to provide other avenues for us to support DACA students...

On other initiatives to recruit and retain students

Jones: Getting admitted and enrolled is one thing, graduating is something that is completely different. And it’s something that we’re very, very proud of. 

We have a first-year retention rate of about 92% for our students. And even for our underrepresented groups, it runs from 85 to about 89%. We have one of the higher first-year, second-year retention rates among any of our peers in the Big Ten.

And we are very, very pleased that also we are at the top of our peer group in terms of not only our four-year but our six-year graduation rates that are approaching 80%. And underrepresented groups are only a few percentage points lower than that.

White: Well, Governor Pritzker was recently on campus to talk about his $45 billion capital plan … $2.9 billion has been earmarked for higher education, and that includes hundreds of millions of dollars going to U of I. How do you plan to use that money?

Jones: The money is going to part of our big strategic plan. About $395 million of that is going to be utilized to help us move that plan forward. One hundred million will go toward something called the Chicago Quantum Exchange, which will solidify a partnership we have with the University of Chicago, Argonne National Lab, Fermilab and the University of Wisconsin to make sure that the Chicago, and therefore the state of Illinois, becomes the epicenter of innovation in this new era of computation.

Some of the other projects are related to the [Discovery Partners Institute] and the Illinois Innovation Network that you’ve heard about, such as the renovation of Altgeld Hall, which is one of the older buildings on campus … as well as the Illini Hall to provide our data analytics center.

This interview was edited for clarity and brevity by Stephanie Kim. Click "play" to hear the full conversation.

GUEST: Robert Jones, chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

LEARN MORE: Four Years. Free Tuition. Illinois Commitment (University of Illinois 2019)

UI’s First Chief Diversity Officer: ‘Breadth And Depth Of Experience’ (The News-Gazette 6/11/19)

Pritzker Celebrates New Infrastructure Plan With Stops Downstate (WILL 7/4/19)

New U of I Innovation Center And ‘The 78’ Megadevelopment Officially Unveiled (Curbed Chicago 10/11/17)

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