Family income of $61,001? No U of I free tuition for you!

Family income of $61,001? No U of I free tuition for you! August 27, 2018

The University of Illinois is getting in on the “free tuition” game:  as reported by NBC Chicago, incoming students from families with less than the Illinois median income (now $61,000) and assets of less than $50,000 (excluding home equity and retirement accounts) will be eligible for free tuition and fees, so long as their family income stays within 10% of the threshold in place at time of admission.

If your family income is $61,001 or if your family has assets of $50,001, no dice.  You’re left with the standard financial aid options.  If your family income drops below $61,000 (or the equivalent threshold in the future) while you’re a student, you can’t receive the benefit.

Where does the money come from?  The university’s website doesn’t say, nor does a Tribune article on the plan, which reports that the program will cost $4 million per year, presumably a smaller figure than it otherwise would be because a sizable number of affected students are already getting financial aid.  Perhaps that’s a drop in the bucket, as the overall budget for the three-university system is $6.5 billion.  Doing some quick additional digging, in 2015, the budget specifically for the Urbana Champaign campus was $2 billion, and tuition revenue was $682 million, or 33% of the total.  Ignoring the increases since then, the proposed cost of this new program is 0.6% of the total; one presumes that, when all the calculations are said and done, this new program will result in net tuition for everyone else being 0.6% higher than it otherwise would have been.  Maybe that’s small enough that tuition-payers shouldn’t begrudge the increase, if it benefits a worthy group of students.

But what’s particularly irritating is the endless profusion of these programs with harsh, unforgiving cutoffs.  It’s a system that cares about generating results, in this case, better metrics with respect to the number of in-state and low-income students attending the university, but not so much about individuals.  The fact that such a program will produce serious angst for families at the margin, if they’ve got a kid who wants to attend; the prospect that a family with assets they’ve carefully saved, might decide to go on a splurge vacation in order to bring them down to $50,000; the idea that a parent would have to factor free tuition into the benefit of a promotion (or into a remarriage decision — since the FAFSA, which this seems based off of, determines family income based on the custodial parent and spouse, but not a live-in partner) is of no importance if it doesn’t impact the metrics and objectives the university has crafted for itself.


Image:  University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Main Library.; By Dori (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 us (], via Wikimedia Commons

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