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Thawing Out After Tuition Freeze

December 13, 2010

A lot has changed at Illinois’s Elgin Community College in the past four years: a new president took office, the college broke ground on some major construction projects and student enrollment ballooned. But one thing has stayed the same: tuition is still $91 per credit hour.

At $2,730 per year for a full-time student taking 15 credit hours per semester, this is not the cheapest tuition in the state. Moreover, Elgin’s tuition remained above the state average for community colleges during the past four years. But Elgin is the only community college in Illinois — and one of relatively few around the country — to have frozen tuition during this period of economic unrest. What’s more, the college held the line while also not having to freeze pay for or lay off faculty and staff.

Now that Elgin’s Board of Trustees is considering finally raising tuition, and both the faculty and staff unions are readying for negotiations of their next contracts, many at the college are looking back at how they were able to keep tuition frozen, in what ways it positively and negatively impacted them, and how the freeze could affect their immediate future.

“The reason we’ve kept our tuition frozen over the last four years is that we are a community college," said Eleanor MacKinney, chair of the Board of Trustees. “We are valued by the community, and we value the community. We felt, as a board, that we should serve the community by keeping tuition as low as possible for as long as possible.”

When the decision was made to commit to a multi-year tuition freeze, focus shifted to the college’s other sources of revenue. Elgin is primarily supported by a local property tax levy, which makes up nearly 58 percent of its planned revenue this year. But the past four years have hardly been the best of times to ask for a tax hike, so the college chose not to ask. Elgin’s enrollment increase has not generated more dollars for the college because appropriations per credit hour have decreased in such a fashion as to essentially flatten state support. State appropriation, as a percentage of Elgin’s overall revenue, has dropped from more than 15 percent to almost 12 percent in the past five years.

“There was really no other way to bring in revenue,” said Sharon Konny, vice president of business and finance. “We could have asked for a tax increase, but we didn’t. Also, we always try for grants. But, mostly, you find some state and federal grants that are short-term. The only other way was to cut our expenses internally.”

The college trimmed about 3-4 percent of its nearly $160 million operational budget by switching from self insurance to a major health insurance carrier. Konny noted that the benefits packages afforded faculty and staff actually improved after the switch. The college centralized purchasing, among other smaller changes. In another key cut, the college reorganized the working hours of its housekeepers and custodians so that overtime pay was no longer needed to finish regular maintenance work. Overtime is still possible for these staffers, though, as necessity dictates.

“It’s always tough to lose potential income,” said Philip Howard, network engineer and president of the Support Staff of Elgin Community College Association, an NEA-affiliated union. “Many of our members felt the impact of that change. But we were able to explain to them that overtime isn’t guaranteed by our contract. And though there may have been some discomfort initially, I think people have adjusted to this change.”

Largely, staff have been supportive of the tuition freeze and the administration’s handling of expenses in the interim.

“All guaranteed money was always delivered,” Howard said of the staff contract, which included raises, during the tuition freeze. “Ultimately, it’s been a good thing to have the freeze. We’re community members, too. Our children go to school here, too. It’s to our benefit that tuition is frozen.”

The Elgin Community College Faculty Association, an AFT-affiliated union, was similarly pleased with the freeze, noting that it had little impact on their day-to-day affairs. Like the staff contract, though, the faculty contract was honored throughout the tuition freeze and included raises.

“Realistically, when tuition goes up, it only goes up a few dollars per credit,” said Gary Christenson, English professor and spokesman for the faculty association. “I think this freeze was more symbolic than anything. I don’t think it caused people to say, 'I’m going to go here [rather] than there.' It’s just a way of the board showing it cares for the community.”

The only area of concern for faculty is the college’s overreliance on adjuncts. As at most community colleges, more than half of the faculty is adjunct. Still, Christenson admitted that the tuition freeze hardly impacted these matters.

“As a union, we can point to areas we think are underfunded,” Christenson said. “But I don’t think any of them are underfunded because of the freeze. It’s more just a difference of opinion. Of course, we’d like more full-time faculty. But the union and the college just have different priorities.”

Both the staff and faculty union contracts are currently being renegotiated, but MacKinney, Howard, and Christenson all noted that the tuition freeze and its impact have not factored into the conversation. All refused further comment on the negotiations, except Christenson, who said the faculty contract renegotiation “was not going well” but that this “had nothing to do with the freeze.”

Konny believes that the college is in a good place financially after having maintained the freeze. For example, the college has had a surplus in the past four years. This past year, it managed to come out $3 million ahead. Also, it has an AAA bond rating from Moody’s, a year after successfully passing a $178 million capital bond referendum locally.

MacKinney believes the college is doing well academically, too. Its completion rate has risen proportionally with its 38 percent increase in enrollment over the past four years. Still, she does not necessarily believe the low tuition was a predominant reason for the rise in enrollment, given that community colleges typically see increases in enrollment during tough economic times.

This good stewardship, MacKinney argued, will make pitching a small tuition raise to the community much easier this year. Locals should not expect a tuition increase next year equivalent to four small ones, she added.

“Do we have four years’ worth of freeze that we need to play catch-up for?” MacKinney said. “No, we’re not going to play catch-up. It’ll be a reasonable increase. To do otherwise would betray the trust of the community that has supported us in other ways.”

 

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