Illinois Bill Threatens Professors’ Cherished Perk: Tuition Breaks for Their Children

March 12, 2015

Illinois lawmakers have put a benefit commonly offered to college employees — tuition breaks for their children — on the chopping block at public universities in response to a big expected cut in state spending on higher education.

A measure pending before the Illinois House of Representatives’ State Government Administration Committee would phase out tuition waivers for public-university employees. Strongly opposed by the universities and unions representing their faculty and staff members, House Bill 403 calls for the repeal of laws that provide a 50-percent tuition waiver to the children of people who have been employed by one or more of the state’s public universities for at least seven years.

"We are in a financial crisis, and our state is sinking," Rep. Jack D. Franks, a Democrat who is both chairman of the committee and the bill’s author, said on Tuesday in an interview. "We need to get rid of things that are not absolutely essential."

"I am trying," he said, "to find a way to plug the budget losses that the universities will have."

Similar measures have come up in Illinois before, only to be defeated in the face of opposition from public universities and their employees. Representative Franks’s measure, however, might face better prospects of passage in Illinois’s Democrat-controlled legislature as a result of the state’s budget troubles.

Gov. Bruce Rauner, a Republican, has proposed cutting state spending on public universities by about $400 million, or nearly 32 percent, to close a projected gap of more than $6 billion in the state’s budget for the coming fiscal year. The governor has not taken a position on the Franks legislation.

Questioned Savings

Representative Franks has already amended his measure to preserve the waivers for the roughly 2,000 recipients now enrolled at Illinois universities, and he said he foresees further amending so it takes effect after the expiration of current contracts for university workers.

He argued, however, that the state eventually must discontinue the waivers as unaffordable. He described them as "just a perk for a very small group of people" and said they "put pressure on the price of tuition for students who are not eligible."

Mr. Franks has projected that eliminating the waivers would save the state nearly $10 million annually.

His savings estimate was challenged as "drastically exaggerated," however, in a statement issued on Tuesday by the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the University Professionals of Illinois. The unions’ statement predicted that, given declining enrollments at many of the state’s public universities, seats once filled by waiver recipients would remain vacant. The statement also argued that the waivers actually save the universities money, by encouraging employees to remain on the job for the long term and thereby reducing hiring and training costs.

"Tuition waivers," the statement argued, "help institutions recruit high-quality faculty and staff," and their availability can mean the difference between retaining employees and losing them to out-of-state institutions. It noted that public universities in many other states fully waive tuition for the children of faculty and staff members.

In-State Path

The state’s public universities have all declared themselves opposed to the measure. In an interview on Wednesday, Jay R. Groves, a spokesman for Illinois State University, said the waivers persuade talented high-school graduates to remain in the state, helping to stem its out-migration of young people. He also said students using the waivers represent a source of revenue for the universities because they still pay "some tuition and, of course, room and board."

Thomas P. Hardy, a spokesman for the University of Illinois, said the waivers also "are important to remain competitive with our peer institutions," nearly all of which offer employees tuition breaks.

The Chronicle surveyed about 50 selective colleges, both public and private, 10 years ago and found that most give tuition breaks to the children of full-time employees. Most said they also give extra consideration to the children of employees in the admission process as a way to express appreciation and to promote employee retention. One acknowledged that, at colleges that require tuition benefits to be used in-house, denying admission to the child of an employee meant denying that employee an expected benefit, creating a potential morale problem.

Robert Kelchen, who has studied such tuition breaks as an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, said few colleges required employees to have been on the job several years, as Illinois’s public universities do. The tuition waivers benefit staff members more than faculty members, he said, because staff members "are less likely to look to send their kids somewhere else," and the waivers generally represent a larger share of their total compensation.

To the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the University Professionals of Illinois, the issue was a question of fairness. "Parents have planned their children’s education based on this part of their employment," the unions’ statement said. "It is simply unfair to change the rules now and take away a key part of their compensation."

"While we often think of faculty as the employees at a university, the reality is that many of the employees are low-wage earners," the statement said. It called the waivers "a vital benefit to these individuals who would not otherwise be able to provide a college education for their children."

Peter Schmidt writes about affirmative action, academic labor, and issues related to academic freedom. Contact him at peter.schmidt@chronicle.com.