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Tuition-Free College In Illinois? It Could Happen, One Lawmaker Says

By Alex Nitkin | September 16, 2016 6:40am | Updated on September 17, 2016 8:33am
 A high school graduation ceremony held at Chicago State University in 2013
A high school graduation ceremony held at Chicago State University in 2013
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DNAinfo/Wendell Hutson

CHICAGO — Months after presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders faded from the national spotlight, one state lawmaker wants to make Illinois a battleground for one of the candidate's chief campaign proposals: free tuition at public colleges and universities.

State Rep. Will Guzzardi (D-Chicago) announced a grassroots campaign Thursday demanding enough tax loophole fixes and tax hikes on the super-rich to waive the cost of in-state public college for Illinois residents.

The legislator kicked off the effort with an online petition Thursday, declaring that "every student should have access to public higher education, regardless of their income."

Starting in early October, Guzzardi will bring the message to campuses around the state, all leading up to a bill he hopes to introduce during the General Assembly's January session, he told DNAinfo Thursday.

"It's important for my colleagues in the Legislature to see that these issues have broad support in communities all over the state," Guzzardi said. "The best way for us to make legislative change is to demonstrate that there's cultural change happening. That's what emboldens people to step up inside the dome."

In order to offset the cost of tuition at state schools, lawmakers in Springfield would have to come up with about $2 billion in new revenue, Guzzardi said. In-state students collectively pay around $1.3 billion to attend four-year institutions, and another $750 million for community colleges. 

It's a hefty sum, especially for a state saddled with more than $26 billion in bond debt. But Guzzardi said the money is easier to find than many would like to acknowledge.

"We're going to be presenting a number of options for how to pay for this, but the reality is that Illinois is a very wealthy state," Guzzardi said. "If we can pass a surcharge on very high-income earner, that already gets us most of the way there. And if we close some corporate loopholes too, that gets us all the way there."

Most people are already behind such a measure, he added, pointing to a 2014 statewide ballot referendum that showed 60 percent support for a "millionaire tax" to beef up education funding.

Still, at first glance, today's Illinois might look like one of the last states where a policy gambit this bold would work out. 

Even as they charge student tuition, many state-funded schools are struggling to stay financially afloat, due in no small part to the state's ongoing budget crisis. Chicago State University, for one, was forced to lay off a third of its faculty this year, even after catching a last-minute life raft from Springfield that kept it from shutting down all together.

But the schools' dire financial straits have a lot do with their rapidly declining enrollment, which itself is driven in part by head-spinning year-over-year tuition hikes. Average tuition and fee rates at Illinois public universities jumped from $4,786 in 2002 to $13,462 in 2015, according to stats cited in Gov. Bruce Rauner's 2016 higher education budget proposal.

In addition, funding for the state's financial aid program, which funds thousands of grants worth thousands of dollars to needy students, has still not been set aside yet for 2016-17 even though the school year has already started.

If lawmakers took a giant leap to make public colleges more affordable, Guzzardi and his allies argued, they could rocket both trends back in the opposite direction.

"This isn't just about getting back to where we were before [the 2015-16 budget crisis]," Guzzardi said. "If we want to renew the confidence that's been lost, we need a big transformational change that can drive the energy and momentum to our schools, to get students and their families excited about coming here."

A spokesman for Rauner did not respond to a request for comment Thursday. 

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