College Affordability for Students in Illinois

On Illinois’ Disinvestment In Higher Education & What Can Be Done About It

College Affordability for Students in Illinois

How Students Experience Disinvestment & What Illinois Can Do to Get Back on Track

For nearly two decades, Illinois has gone through a period of disinvestment in higher education, seeing continued losses in higher education appropriations and underinvestment to student financial aid, effectively shifting the burden to pay onto students.

This study has three companion reports: Priced Out: Black StudentsPriced Out: Latinx Students; and Priced Out: Rural Students. The reports provide insight into how disparities in access, cost, and ability to pay are creating barriers for Illinois students across the state and recommends policy action to start reversing these trends.

For nearly two decades, Illinois has gone through a period of disinvestment in higher education, seeing continued losses in higher education appropriations and underinvestment to student financial aid, effectively shifting the burden to pay onto students.

This study has three companion reports: Priced Out: Black Students, Priced Out: Latinx Students, Priced Out: Rural Students. The reports provide insight into how disparities in access, cost, and ability to pay are creating unique barriers for Illinois students across the state and recommends policy actions to start reversing these trends.


Priced Out: Black Students

Priced Out: Black Students

On Illinois’ Disinvestment In Higher Education & What Can Be Done About It

Read Report

Priced Out: Latinx Students

Priced Out: Latinx Students

On Illinois’ Disinvestment In Higher Education & What Can Be Done About It

Read Report

Priced Out: Rural Students

Priced Out: Rural Students

On Illinois’ Disinvestment In Higher Education & What Can Be Done About It

Read Report

A Brief History of College Affordability

Nearly two decades ago, Illinois was considered a leader in college affordability thanks to strong investment in its public institutions of higher education and students through the Monetary Award Program (MAP), Illinois’ need-based financial aid program.[1] In 2002, the state covered the majority of college costs through state appropriations, leaving just 28-30% to be covered by students through tuition and fees.[2] At the same time, the maximum MAP grant covered 100% of tuition and fees at public two-year and four-year institutions, and all eligible students received an award.[3] The state’s values were clear – through strong investments, Illinois would ensure higher education was accessible and affordable for all.

Promisingly, Illinois made strong investments in higher education in Fiscal Year 2020, but in the two decades prior, Illinois strayed from its commitment to making higher education accessible. From 2002 to 2018, funding for Illinois public universities was cut over 50% and community colleges saw similar disinvestment, making Illinois among the worst in the nation in terms of the size of its cuts to per-student higher education funding.[4] Despite recent investments, Illinois’ state financial aid program has become unreliable and has not kept pace with increases in tuition.[5] As a result, students’ share of college costs increased dramatically between 2002 and 2018.[6] ...

During this period of disinvestment, the state shifted several costs previously covered by Illinois to the institutions themselves.[7] Additionally, with limited to no state capital funding to cover maintenance projects, many public university buildings had to be maintained through tuition increases or spending down reserves, or worse, have been left to crumble. This increased financial strain on all institutions, but especially on the state’s most underfunded institutions, shifting spending away from essential services such as instruction and student support.

Meanwhile, the percentage of state funds needed to cover pension costs continued to grow. In the Fiscal Year 2019 budget, 44% of all state spending on higher education went toward pension obligations, which is significantly higher than the national average.[8] As pension costs rise, state funds available for institutions and students shrinks. Like an economy suffering from spiraling inflation, Illinois has addressed its pension obligations through austerity, with institutions forced to further raise prices, and this has had depressing effects on enrollment.

Adding to the financial strain, in Fiscal Year 2016 and 2017, during the unprecedented time when the state was operating without a budget, higher education funding was further slashed by 60-70%, putting several institutions on the brink of closing their doors completely. Public colleges and universities had to make hard decisions in order to keep their doors open, including eliminating degree programs, limiting student services, and implementing college-wide layoffs.

This disinvestment in higher education created an environment ripe for harm to students. With nowhere else to turn, institutions had to make up for the loss in state appropriations by increasing tuition, shifting the burden to pay onto students. At some institutions, in-state tuition has nearly doubled over the last ten years. Even community colleges, a lower-cost path to a career or bachelor’s degree completion, have had to increase tuition by 80% over the last decade.[9]

Disinvestment in higher education hit low-income students particularly hard. As institutions raised tuition to cover costs, the students’ share of college costs increased, and with it, the buying power of MAP decreased. At its peak in 2002, the maximum MAP grant covered 100% of tuition and fees at community colleges and universities for all eligible students.[10] In Fiscal Year 2019, the maximum award covered only 32% of public university tuition and 66% of community college tuition.[11] Furthermore, due to lack of funding, MAP became a first-come, first-served program, with nearly 90,000 low-income students receiving no grant at all, and those are just the students who were both eligible and applied.[12]

Over the course of the last 17 years 1.5 million MAP grants have been denied to Illinois students; that’s $3.25 billion dollars in aid denied to students who were eligible and applied for the grant, which has had untold effects on enrollment, persistence, and completion in the state. While Fiscal Year 2020 saw the largest increase in MAP appropriations to date, until the program is fully funded, tens of thousands of students will be denied funding each year and could miss out on the opportunity of higher education altogether.

As appropriations fall, tuition and fees rise at Illinois public institutions

MAP shortfalls are leaving about 100,000 eligible students without aid annually

Sources: Illinois Student Assistance Commission (ISAC) data on MAP suspensions and appropriations and tuition and fees data from the Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE)

Vision for the Future

Our vision for higher education is the inverse of what Illinois has experienced over the last two decades. With equitable reinvestment in Illinois and its students and by advancing policy that eliminates barriers and maximizes opportunity, enrollments and graduation rates will rise, providing Illinois’ workforce with more qualified graduates every year. Students will graduate at greater rates and with less debt Black and Latinx students will be better able to access economic opportunities and build wealth, and rural students will be able to stay in their communities if they wish, boosting the economy of these areas. 

Finally, institutions will pull out of enrollment spirals, regaining their standing and further drawing in students with out-of-state options. Illinois will realize the full potential for equity in degree completion by increasing investments in higher education and by implementing policies that improve access to collegedecrease the cost of a degree, and improve degree payoff for Black, Latinx, and rural students. 

Improving Access

The first step in restoring higher education’s potential for socioeconomic mobility is to fix the issues that are causing a college education to be inaccessible to many of Illinois’ Black, Latinx, and rural students. While there is no silver bullet, with clear accountability and incentives for serving a student body representative of the demographics of the state, and increased funding for the institutions currently serving our Black and Latinx students, there will be progress. Improving access will also require targeted recruitment of low-income students, increased need-based financial aid, and comprehensive developmental education reform. Together, this suite of reforms has the potential to drive up enrollment and completion rates for all student groups.

Recommendation 1: Convene a Work Group to Address Equitable Funding

1. Convene a Work Group to Address Equitable Funding

Over the last decade, the state’s public universities’ ability to keep tuition low and college affordable has been limited by volatile state funding. As a result, sustained reinvestment is necessary to improve accessibility at Illinois’ public universities. However, funding universities through the same mechanism used today – a “historical model” whereby institutions typically receive funding based on the prior year’s amount and largely driven by the lobbying power of the institution – is not a model designed to drive equity.
To provide more predictability in year-to-year funding and clear alignment with state goals, state appropriations for our public universities should funnel through the university coordinating board. The Illinois Board of Higher Education (IBHE) would be well positioned to drive an equity-centered strategic plan, if, like the Illinois Community College Board (ICCB), it can align public funds accordingly. To inform the creation of a mechanism for appropriating state funds, state leaders should convene an inclusive work group to provide recommendations for how additional state investment in higher education can be distributed to improve equity in college access and degree completion.
A well-designed university funding formula has two-fold potential for improving funding issues that disproportionately affect Black, Latinx, and rural students: it can encourage well-resourced institutions to serve more diverse student populations, and better fund institutions that are already disproportionately enrolling these students.

Recommendation 2: Create a Statewide Direct Admissions Program

2. Create a Statewide Direct Admissions Program

In Spring 2019, the Illinois legislature passed a bill creating a guaranteed admissions pilot program at five state universities.[13] During the four-year pilot, applicants in the top ten percent of their class who meet the participating institution’s admissions test requirement will be guaranteed admission to the university. The goal of the pilot program is to address declining student enrollment and improve diversity among the state’s public universities.[14] This policy can be infused with additional equity and potentially address undermatching—the phenomenon whereby students, most often Black, Latinx, and low-income, attend less selective institutions than they are qualified—by incorporating a system for sending all eligible high school students college acceptance letters from all state universities for which they meet the minimum admissions criteria. This approach would expand the pilot to all state universities and would help inform more students of their eligibility for college who might not otherwise apply.

Implementers created a similar program in Idaho and have seen encouraging outcomes. As a result of this policy, enrollment disparities by gender and socioeconomic status have decreased, first generation students were positively impacted, and student diversity has increased.[15] Those implementing the uniform admissions pilot program in Illinois should take note of Idaho’s efforts.

Recommendation 3: Place Fewer Students Into Traditional Developmental Education

3. Place Fewer Students Into Traditional Developmental Education

To achieve equitable access to higher education, institutions must commit to place more students into college-level coursework by using more accurate placement measures, like high school GPA, and to provide differentiated supports to students who need them. In Illinois, several institutions across the state are implementing reforms to better serve students, including co-requisite support, Accelerated Learning Program (ALP) models, and other accelerated models of developmental education.

Recognizing these efforts, the legislature charged the IBHE and ICCB with inventorying and analyzing current models to create a benchmark for future reform. With an inventory of best practices, by July 1, 2020, IBHE and ICCB must create a detailed plan for scaling models across the state that maximize student success. To ensure the successful implementation of the Boards’ recommendations, the state should provide new funds to colleges and universities to implement and scale reforms. While the return on investment for developmental reforms are often significant, so too is the need to fund innovation. Recommendations without state financial commitment to scale could derail momentum to change.

Recommendation 4: Improve Transfer Pathways

4. Improve Transfer Pathways

As a lower cost option to bachelor’s degree completion, Illinois’ transfer system is an important pathway for Illinois’ students. Given that Illinois currently leads the nation in the percentage of community college students who transfer to a four-year institution and complete a degree, the transfer pipeline holds promise for affordability in Illinois.[16] However, to ensure all students can benefit from the state’s success, four-year institutions will have to take bold steps toward increasing the number of Black and Latinx students who transfer into their institution from community college. By reframing policies and institutional practices to support transfer students, the state will continue to lead the nation in transfer success and position itself as a model for equity in transfer outcomes.

Decreasing the Cost of a Degree

To improve college affordability for all of Illinois’ students, the state must offer a comprehensive solution that addresses the rising costs of college, inconsistent and decreased purchasing power of MAP grants, and all barriers to transfer and/or graduation.

Fixing the Pension Crisis

It is beyond the scope of this report to propose solutions to the pension crisis, beyond pointing to solutions that minimize the competition of funds allocated among pensions, institutions, and students.[17] However, the pension issue must be resolved for Illinois to offer affordable, equitable, high-quality education at a reasonable price to taxpayers. In the meantime, it must further invest in its students and institutions to pull them out of a quality, cost, and enrollment downward spiral.

Recommendation 1: More Equitably Fund Colleges and Universities

1. More Equitably Fund Colleges and Universities

Over the last two decades, many of the colleges and universities serving greater numbers of the state’s Black and Latinx students have been significantly underfunded. As a result, these institutions have had to make tough decisions to maintain a high-level of service to their students, including institution-wide layoffs and program closures. To build these institutions’ capacity to better serve students, the state must significantly increase investments to them. By coupling reinvestment with an equitable funding formula, aligned to and driven by the goals of the higher education coordinating boards, the legislature can better fund institutions that disproportionately serve students of color and encourage well-resourced institutions to serve more diverse student populations.

Recommendation 2: Eliminate MAP at For-Profit Institutions

2. Eliminate MAP at For-Profit Institutions

Black students are over-represented in Illinois’ for-profit institutions, which have the most concerning debt and career outcomes of any sector of higher education in Illinois. Though for-profits account for less than 8% of Illinois’ student borrowers, they are responsible for more than $300 million in loan amounts for borrowers who have defaulted on federal loans since 2012 – that’s 1.8 times more than the total of all other public and private Illinois institutions combined.[18] Yet, federal oversight over for-profit institutions continues to decrease as the U.S. Department of Education rolls back Obama-era student protections.

To help protect students where the federal government is stepping out, Illinois should drive more students away from potentially predatory for-profit institutions and into the state’s public and private nonprofit colleges. To this end, state leaders should eliminate for-profit institutions from the list of MAP-eligible institutions. By phasing out MAP from for-profit institutions, the state’s most vulnerable students have less opportunity to enroll in colleges that are likely to burden them with debt for years to come.[19]

Recommendation 3: Completion and Re-engagement Grants

3. Completion and Re-engagement Grants

In Illinois, approximately 1.8 million adults have some college but no degree. To increase completion rates among current students, the state should be proactive in identifying and addressing some of the common reasons students stop-out in the first place. For example, students with less wealth are more at risk of dropping out if they experience unforeseen expenses or gaps in their ability to pay for college. Following the lead of other states, Illinois could distribute state dollars to colleges and universities to fund micro-grants for students who are on track for graduation but have an unmet financial need. Typically, completion grants are available to students with less than one year of coursework remaining and can cover unmet financial need related to institu-tional tuition or fees, books, general living expenses, or unexpected emergencies.

Similarly, the state should work to strategically re-engage adults with some college education, drawing on this talent pool to provide a needed boost in enrollment and fill gaps in workforce needs like teaching and early education. By making a commitment to guide and support adult students back to and through college, and reorienting institutional policies to support adult students’ unique needs, Illinois can provide thousands of Illinoisans true opportunity for social mobility.

Increasing Students’ Ability to Pay

The greatest gaps in college affordability for low-income students and students of color are in the ability to pay for college. Though wealth disparities are not easily fixed, state policy can lower the effects of these gaps by increasing equity in its financial aid programs.

Recommendation 1: Increase State Investment in the Monetary Award Program (MAP)

1. Increase State Investment in the Monetary Award Program (MAP)

The original definition of full funding for MAP meant to cover the total cost of tuition and fees for all qualified students. Today, that would cost more than $1 billion on top of current appropriations.[20] To minimize sticker shock and as an on-road to full funding, the state should prioritize an intermediate goal of funding all eligible students at current rates.

While the price tag may be intimidating, increased access to an education is critical not only for low-income students, but for the state itself. By next year, 65 percent of jobs will require training or education beyond a high school degree.[21] Without an intentional focus on enrolling and graduating more Black, Latinx, and rural students, the state will fall short of meeting the workforce demand and further contribute to longstanding racial inequity. A fully funded MAP program would not only help all eligible students access college, but complete after enrollment; MAP recipients graduate college at about the same rate as their peers at the same institutions.[22]

Fully investing in MAP is a clear and direct pathway to affordable college. With the state’s commitment to a graduated income-tax and other strategic revenue generating reforms, a fully funded financial aid program is within reach.

Recommendation 2: Eliminate or Limit Merit-Based Aid

2. Eliminate or Limit Merit-Based Aid

The Aspirational Institutional Match Helping Illinois Grow Higher Education (AIM HIGH) Grant Program, a relatively new merit-based financial aid program, is the state’s attempt to slow the outmigration of Illinois’ high school graduates leaving to attend college in other states.[23] The program provides grant funds to public universities for distribution to Illinois high school graduates who meet the eligibility requirements set by the institution. Eligibility requirements vary widely across institutions. The only need-based qualification set out in the legislation is that a student’s family income be no greater than six times the national poverty guideline — about $150,000 for a family of four. Further, it provides that institutions should use their best efforts to distribute funds across a racially diverse range of students. However, even with recommendation from the state to equitably distribute grant dollars, increasing funding for this program may come at the detriment of students who most need support.

Moreover, since the AIM HIGH Grant Program has an institutional match requirement, institutional investment in the program must increase along with state investment. By design the grant program could actually draw institutional aid away from low-income students who depend on them to attend these universities and direct it to better-resourced students who may have chosen to attend that university anyway. With enrollment numbers in precipitous decline, now is not the time to expand a grant program that may result in even fewer Illinois’ students being able to afford public universities.

A more equitable path to drive Illinois’ students to attend public universities would be to redirect the funds to cover the thousands of students who will apply for MAP and not receive any aid this year, despite being eligible. Alternatively, state leaders could remove the matching requirement for institutions whose student population is representative of the demographics of the state and ensure more AIM HIGH dollars are allocated to them. Reducing or removing the matching requirement could protect less resourced institutions and incentivize other institutions to serve more low-income students and students of color.

Improving Degree Payoff Through Loan Forgiveness

Debt forgiveness programs are at the center of several 2020 presidential campaigns, and for good reason, as student loan debt in the U.S. is the highest it has ever been. Largely as a result of racial wealth disparities, Black students carry a disproportionate amount of debt, are more likely to default than White students, and there are large debt disparities for both non-completers and graduates.[24] While the current loan forgiveness proposals are varied, analyses of the most promising programs agree that targeted debt relief must account for wealth in addition to income. A comprehensive student debt forgiveness plan focused on equity and that considers family wealth has the potential to significantly improve the wealth of Black, Latinx, and low-income families, provide a boost to the national economy, and lead to a more equitable payoff of a college degree for Black Illinoisans.

Realizing Our Vision Through State Policy

To realize the vision of an equitable higher education system that drives economic mobility, and to meet the state’s degree attainment goal of 60% by 2025, state leaders must intentionally and strategically align goals, policies, and actions to meet that end. Through an inclusive process, state leaders should set equity-centered goals and strategic plans designed to make institutions and the system more accessible and affordable for low-income students and students of color. State legislators should support the goals of the state and articulate their commitment to students through bold investments in higher education and by establishing policies that, like those described above, improve access to collegedecrease the cost of a degree, and  improve degree payoff for Black, Latinx, and rural students. The future prosperity of our state depends on leaders taking urgent, equity-centered action.


1.    Perna, Laura, Joni Finney, and Patrick Callan. “A Story of Decline: Performance and Policy in Illinois Higher Education.” Institute for Research on Higher Education, n.d.
2.    The Illinois Board of Higher Education. “Fiscal Year 2020 Higher Education Budget Recommendations,” December 4, 2018.
3.    Ibid.
4.    Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. “Illinois’ Significant Disinvestment in Higher Education.” The Budget Blog, January 30, 2017. Illinois cut per-student higher education funding by 54%, with Arizona being the only large state with greater cuts.
5.    “Examining the Relationship between State Appropriation Support and Tuition and Fees at Illinois Public Universities.” Illinois Board of Higher Education. Accessed August 8, 2019.
6.    The Illinois Board of Higher Education, “Fiscal Year 2020 Higher Education Budget Recommendations.”
7.    The Illinois Board of Higher Education. “Fiscal Year 2019 Governor’s Higher Education Budget Operations, Grants, And Capital Improvements,” April 13, 2018. 
8.    Rhodes, Dawn. “How Much Money Are Illinois Colleges Getting in the New Budget? ‘It’s Definitely Good News for Colleges and Universities.’’.’” Chicago Tribune, June 19, 2019.
9.    College Board. “Trends in College Pricing: Tables & Figures.” Research, May 31, 2019.
10.    The Illinois Board of Higher Education, “Fiscal Year 2020 Higher Education Budget Recommendations.”

11.    Ibid.
12.    “Basic ISAC Program Data.” Illinois Student Assistance Commission, December 2018.
13.    Thapedi, André. Higher Ed - Uniform Admission, Pub. L. No. HB0026 (2018).
14.    Hancock, Peter. “Illinois Proposal for Uniform College Admissions Standards Ignites Controversy.” The Pantagraph, February 8, 2019.
15.    Freeman, Matt. “Defending Idaho’s Direct Admissions Program.” Inside Higher Ed, October 15, 2018.
16.    United States Department of Education, “Community College Student Outcomes: 1994-2009,” 2011. 19.6% in Illinois compared to 14.7% nationally
17.    Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. “Addressing Illinois’ Pension Debt Crisis With Reamortization.” Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, May 21, 2018.
18.    Miller, “How You Can See Your College’s Long-Term Default Rate.”
19.    Scott-Clayton, Judith. “The Looming Student Loan Default Crisis Is Worse than We Thought.” Brookings (blog), January 11, 2018.
20.    Analysis of data provided by the Illinois Student Assistance Commission (ISAC)
21.    Carnevale, Anthony P., Nicole Smith, and Jeff Strohl. “Recovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements Through 2020.” CEW Georgetown (blog), June 27, 2013.
22.    Ibid.
23.    “AIM HIGH Grant Pilot Program.” Illinois Student Assistance Commission. Accessed September 18, 2019
24.    Mishory, Jen, Mark Huelsman, and Suzanee Kahn. “How Student Debt and the Racial Wealth Gap Reinforce Each Other.” The Century Foundation, September 9, 2019.

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