Facing a potential $17.4 million budget gap next year, City Colleges of Chicago is considering its first tuition increase in five years. If approved, a set of possible tuition hikes could go into effect this summer.
This comes as the public community college system — the state’s largest, with 71,000 students — has been struggling with declining enrollment and has few options for increasing revenue.
City Colleges is presenting three options to students, many of whom are low-income, first generation college students. These include a 3% increase in tuition each year for the next four years; charging students who take more than 12 credit hours and charging fees for high-cost courses like culinary arts and science labs.
Tuition for one semester is now $1,752. Bumping up tuition by 3% would cost students an additional $48 per semester in the first year and $228 by the fourth year.
“There’s no doubt that this is going to add to what students need to meet in terms of financial challenge,” Provost Mark Potter told a crowd of faculty and some students Tuesday at Kennedy-King College in Englewood. “We take seriously the affordability challenge for students and we’re looking for solutions and ways to help students.”
But even if all three options are implemented, the recommended changes will only bring in $9.5 million if enrollment remains stable. Enrollment has declined each year since 2010. It’s not clear yet how City Colleges plans to fill the rest of the projected budget hole.
City Colleges is holding open forums at each of its seven campuses to present the three options to students, though there is no mention of the forums on their website homepage, events calendar, news and updates page or under the tuition and fees section. The recommendations were developed by a committee of students, faculty, college presidents and district office officials.
The board of trustees is scheduled to consider some or all of the tuition changes at their March board meeting, depending on what Chancellor Juan Salgado recommends.
Currently, City Colleges is the only community college in Illinois that caps tuition for students after 12 credits, meaning students who take 12 or more credits pay the same rate regardless of how many credits they take. Under their proposal students would pay the extra hours up to 15 credit hours. The tuition revenue committee believes raising the cap to 15 credits is a fairer way to charge tuition to all students, rather than providing tuition benefits just to full-time students.
“Part-time students are essentially paying to subsidize free tuition for full-time students over 12 credit hours,” Potter told the crowd at Kennedy-King. “That is one of the disparities we sought to address in the proposals.”
Some proposed course fees include a $30 fee for science labs, which would affect the largest number of students. It also includes a $50 flat fee for career and technical labs, $100-200 fees for private music lessons and a $200 fee for the culinary program. Most community colleges in Illinois also charge a variety of course fees.
City Colleges contends it will remain an affordable option and argues its credit hour tuition and course fee proposals are lower than other nearby suburban colleges.
About half the students at City Colleges pay out of pocket and nearly 40% receive some kind of federal, state or local financial aid. City Colleges enroll the largest number of Pell grant recipients of any two-year community college in the state, nearly three times as many as College of DuPage, which enrolls the second highest number, according to federal data.
It’s difficult to calculate how higher tuition would impact all students since each student’s financial aid is dependent on family income. City Colleges said students who receive the most financial aid will not see a change in out-of-pocket costs. However, it could affect the refund they receive from their federal grant after tuition is paid, which they can use for other expenses, including books, transportation, or rent.
For instance, if a current community college student received the maximum Pell grant ($6,195) and the maximum state financial aid grant ($1,650), they would receive a refund of about $3,300 to use for other costs, based on the average community college tuition rate.
Students have had mixed reactions to the proposals so far. Some dislike the 3% increase, said Edwin Medina, student government president at Wright College on the Far Northwest Side. Medina says they surveyed students who prefer that City Colleges eliminate the tuition cap and require all students to pay by the credit hour.
Others understand City Colleges is in a tight financial situation.
“There has to be some way to fill that [gap] and unfortunately it has to be off of students,” said Majaya Glenn, student government president at Kennedy-King. Still, she worries about her fellow students at Kennedy-King, many of whom qualify for financial aid. According to state data, the average family income of students at Kennedy-King is $14,560.
“Say you're in culinary and then you have to get books and on the side you have to take a biology course with a lab and you can’t work because you're full time,” she said, referring to classes with proposed course fees. “It's scary to think what would happen if you can’t fill that gap.”