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Not from Illinois? No matter, regional colleges drop non-resident tuition

Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville
Students walk through Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville's campus.

A long, slow decline in both state funding and enrollment has public colleges in Illinois cutting staff and increasing tuition. In the face of a financial shortfall, it would seem campuses would seek out every dollar available.

But Western Illinois University and Southern Illinois University are trying a different tactic. They’re eliminating higher out-of-state tuition rates so any undergrad from any state will pay what used to be the lower in-state tuition.

“It’s a tradeoff of more students paying lower tuition versus fewer students paying that larger tuition,” said Brad Curs, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Missouri at Columbia. He studies the economics of higher education.

Long-held economic theory in higher education says the easiest way to increase revenue in the face of declining state funding is to raise tuition, according to Curs, who said the bump in dollars off-sets the students who are priced out. The moves by Western Illinois and Southern Illinois counter that idea.

“What they’re essentially implying is ‘we’re better off having a lot more students at in-state rates versus out-of-state rates and let’s not restrict ourselves to the state we’re in’,” Curs added.

It was already fairly easy for students at those regional schools to claim the lower in-state residency rate, and most do so after their freshman year. Moreover, the schools extended their reduced price to residents of neighboring states, like Missouri and Indiana. So this change, said Scott Belobrajdic, SIU-Edwardsville’s vice chancellor for enrollment, eliminates the sticker shock for kids from far-flung states attending the college.

“Because you try to explain: ‘Oh, well you can come here and six months later, we’ll go ahead and give you an in-state rate,’” he said. “And sometimes it’s hard to keep their interest even that far into the conversation.”

The lower tuition for out-of-state students will allow them to be more competitive with other states’ public university systems. “In the past we would be charging an out-of-state student 2 ½ times our tuition, so we would be priced more like a private institution,” Belobrajdic said.

Western Illinois University made the move to one domestic rate -- with a higher international rate still -- last autumn. SIU will begin doing the same this coming fall.

There’s another big reality looming for public schools in Illinois. Long-term forecasts predict fewer college-aged kids coming out of local high schools. So schools will have to look farther to find students.

“We don’t want to leave any seats empty, so it is better to have a student from several states away than have an empty seat,” Belobrajdic said.

“It’s going to be a tough market to find the students that are willing to move halfway across the country for an institution that doesn’t have a name brand,” Curs said.

SIU’s Carbondale and Edwardsville campuses have gone through staff layoffs and spending cuts as lawmakers continue fighting out a budget impasse. The schools haven’t eliminated any academic programs yet, which Belobrajdic hopes will be a selling point to students who haven’t heard of Illinois’ smaller public colleges.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney.

Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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