Senate bills to ease college costs aren’t passing by end of spring session, legislators say

Illinois State University
Illinois State University(25 News/Heart of Illinois ABC)
Published: Mar. 30, 2022 at 2:45 PM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD (WGEM) - College costs can easily soar into the six figures. The national average for the total cost of a four-year degree hangs around $101,948.

Senators are pushing legislation that would try to ease those costs. However, two of the three sponsors admitted it was not likely to pass within the final eight days of session. The earliest it could pass is in a special or veto session later this year. However, if it fails to move before the election of a new General Assembly in November, the bill will have to start over from the very beginning.

The bills look to tackle the extraneous costs that come with pursuing a college degree rather than the tuition cost itself. One bill sponsored by Sen. Laura Fine (D - Glenview) would allow students to put their MAP grant money towards the cost of room, board and textbooks. Currently, those funds can only be put towards tuition and fees.

“We should be rewarding our hardworking students who are doing all they can to achieve their goal of a higher education,” Fine said. She said she remembered while teaching political science at Northeastern Illinois University students would work overnight shifts to afford school and living costs.

Textbooks have been one of the highest rising costs for higher education. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics states book prices have risen 88% in a 10-year period between 2006 and 2016. Students budget over a thousand dollars on average for the cost of course materials.

A bill sponsored by Sen. Scott Bennet (D - Champaign) would require universities to provide textbooks at no cost to students. They wouldn’t be giving them away, Bennet argues but providing them on a free rental basis. Students would check the books out for a semester and return them when the class ends.

The bill stalled in discussions with universities, who argue the cost would be too high for the institution.

“Universities have come to the table already and said: well here’s the astronomical cost that it will be to our universities this year,” Bennet said. “They are assuming that we are just going to, for free, give away the books to the students. That’s pretty unimaginative thinking.”

He argued other universities in Illinois have instituted other programs. Without doing this, he argued students are encouraged to leave Illinois for higher education.

For students, those costs can’t be ignored. Oftentimes they need to take on extra work to afford rent, living necessities in addition to what they need for their courses.

Meghan O’Brien who completed her bachelor’s out-of-state and returned for a graduate degree at the University of Illinois Springfield said she regularly works 50 to 60 hours a week between internships and paid work to afford the cost of her education. She said much of her free time is taken up earning money for living costs that could be used to study for her licensing exams.

“Let me tell you the extra burden of having to figure out: ‘Is it worth it for me to get to study eight extra hours this Saturday, or do I have to work this job in order to make this month’s rent?’” O’Brien said. “I mean, that’s where I’m at.”

A third proposal from Sen. Laura Murphy (D - Des Plaines) would provide tax credits to Illinois families with college students attending institutions in the state. If the combined income of a home is between six and seven times the poverty level, families are eligible for a $1,000 tax credit per child attending an Illinois school. The tax credit decreases incrementally until a family is many times over the poverty level value, which Murphy said aims the help middle-class families.

Advocates argue it’s important to incentivize students to stay in the state for their education.

“In terms of return on investment for state dollars, there is no higher investment than a higher education,” Bennet said. “Creating opportunity, keeping people here and, as I like to see it, making this a destination for future families to move here... I don’t think there’s anything more we can do than addressing our challenges in higher ed.”

Two of the three sponsors said these bills are unlikely to pass before session ends. They did not give a specific timeline for when it may move into the house. Fine said their proposals may be combined into one bill.

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