Friday, September 5, 2014

University of Illinois needs to do more than lower tuition


     So the University of Illinois is worried because more potential freshmen get admitted but decide to go elsewhere.
     A valid concern. It won’t be much of a University of Illinois if the school is all exchange students from Ghana and Qatar.
     In 2006, 58 percent of students admitted from Illinois ended up attending; last year, it was 45 percent. At this rate, soon the only thing “Illinois” about it will be the name.
     How to get more homegrown kids to go to our big land-grant college? Maybe, Illinois leaders wonder, they should lower tuition. That way, kids won’t be so quick to grab attractive college deals from other states.
     That’s a start. Going to Illinois used to be bargain, but relentless cost-cutting has eroded quality and boosted costs at our still-great-despite-everything university system.
     But money is only one factor in the swirling confusion of college. As the father of a boy who just snubbed U of I to fly way the heck off to college in California, and another who is a high school senior in the midst of visiting schools — nine since spring, including Illinois — I feel well-positioned to give the Illini powers that be some friendly advice as to how they can make their university more attractive to hard-to-please locals.
     Numbers to keep in mind are 63 and 41.
     Sixty-three is the acceptance rate at Illinois. The acceptance rate at University of Michigan is half that. Illinois could let in fewer students, hoping those it did admit might get the sense they had achieved something truly significant by being admitted and actually go.
     Yes, a lot of kids work like demons to get in, and are deliriously happy if they do, U of I representing the attainment of their dreams. I don’t want to minimize that.
     But many others apply to U of I and don’t attend because they consider it a worst-case scenario “safety school” — the fire ax behind glass if they don’t get their top picks.
     You can cut the cost. A tougher trick is making U of I a place where more students really want to go or, rather, publicizing that it offers more than size and a campus farm.
     Which leads us to the second figure: 41. The ranking on the U.S. News & World Report list of “Best Colleges.” Rankings have become an end unto themselves as overachieving students and anxious parents fixate on the lists and ratings.
     “There’s this insidious effect,” agreed Chris Kennedy, president of the board of trustees, pointing out how University of Illinois-Chicago leapt ahead of Champaign in the rankings by making it easier to apply. “Does that make it a better school?”
     They also need to work on intangibles. I was shocked, when I started to think about the school seriously, to realize how little I knew. My impression for 20 years was this: Urbana-Champaign is a place where kids get raped in the woods. Why? Because in 1995 a serial rapist prowled campus.
     Is that fair? Of course not. But balance is a rare quality in the college hunt, and I’ll give another example: Name one Illinois professor. How many came up with “Bill Ayers,” the unrepentant ’60s radical? He taught at U of I-Chicago, and isn’t even there anymore. Add the murderer, also gone, and the latest hate tweeter, never hired, and Illinois risks becoming the place where kooks teach.
     When I visited campus in March — for the first time; I never had reasons to go before — I was surprised to find it … attractive. Pleasant, not the seedy sinkhole of downstate grimness I expected, but bristling with programs and libraries and quirky collegiate peculiarities, like a squirrel watchers club.
     After taking the tour and attending orientation, I could see my boys going there, even though they continued fixating on stats.
     Kennedy said the board has pledged to keep the number of Illinois students “no fewer than in the past” though the student population might be fattened with more foreign students paying full freight.
     He is concerned Illinois will try to win over applicants by offering less need-based aid and more merit scholarships, which sound good, though schools give them to well-off families whose students are high achievers, including his own daughter, offered a sports scholarship. “Why are they giving the Kennedys a scholarship?” he said.
     Kennedy added that while the image of Illinois indeed is “big,” that “is only the start.”
     “I don’t think it’s the size that should blow you away,” he said. “It’s the quality of programs, the engineering, accounting, massive talent in liberal arts and sciences. That’s what makes the institution great.”
     But try to tell the kids of today that.


18 comments:

  1. Cost is a huge factor. Going to iowa or mizzou is cheaper for many Illinois residents. And for many kids not wanting to go is about not wanting to end up hanging with the same people you knew in high school.( which really is often the case with the kid I know at illinois).


    And Ayers didn't come to mind for me. Though he's on my radar because he provided sound advice to a friend about raising a child not your own, to know that they can count on your total love and support as a parent but also that you understand that they have other parents. It's a tough job that he and his wife took on and that's the capacity I know him best in.

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  2. I was at UIUC from 1993-1997..... and I have no memory of a serial rapist. I am amazed at what does (or does not) stick with you.

    UIUC is a great school for a lot of majors. It was a terrific option for me and I am happy to say I'm a graduate.

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    1. To refresh your memory. From the Tribune, Nov. 25, 1995:

      U. OF I. CAMPUS TENSE AFTER AUTUMN OF RAPE, MURDER

      BYLINE: By Wes Smith, Tribune Staff Writer.

      DATELINE: URBANA

      With reports of rape, sexual assault and even murder dominating the news, this has been an especially tense fall semester on the University of Illinois campus.
      The violence has triggered an unprecedented increase in security precautions and considerable anxiety among faculty, students and parents back home.


      "I think it is fair to say that there is anxiety on campus and that we are trying to address that anxiety and also the reality," said Bill Murphy, associate chancellor for public affairs.
      "We would like people to take a proper amount of caution, to not have unreasonable fear and to not ignore the fact that we live in a society where nobody is absolutely safe from crime," he said.
      Students said their fears are reasonable given the disturbing crimes reported this semester.
      "Within three weeks someone was raped and murdered, someone was shot and people have been stabbed in their dorms. I don't remember anything this bad happening last year. It's kind of scary," said Karen Collins, a sophomore from Homewood and an editor at the Daily Illini campus newspaper.
      "I know my parents have been calling to ask me what is happening, and other parents are calling mine because they know my sister and I work for the paper."
      While police and university officials say that crime in general is not on the upswing in the Champaign-Urbana area, a rare rape-murder on campus, a suspected serial rapist in the community and scattered reports of other crimes have heightened fear and brought calls for increased security.

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    2. Thanks. I still have no memories of this entire thing, even with the reminder. I asked the Spouse (who was also there at the same time) and he had some vague memories, but nothing concrete. Clearly, it didn't make much of an impression on us.....

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  3. In 1980, U of I was cheap and close, which remain important criteria for me in making life choices.
    John

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  4. I think UIC's emergence actually gives Champaign more flexibility to be selective: if Illinois residents don't have a decent in-state second option then we shouldn't have an ultra-selective in-state primary university (for example, Michigan kids who don't get into Ann Arbor - a highly selective school - have Michigan State, definitely no slouch). Mr. Steinberg (better?), once again you are master of the lip service: you say you "don't want to minimize" the kids and families for whom U of I is by far their best opportunity for a life and income like, well, yours, but then proceed to do just that by not addressing *why* it would be fair, or better, to reduce their opportunities for the benefit of the accomplished students using U o I as a safety school. There may indeed be Illinois parents whose kids can get into better top-tier schools but can't afford it, so their kids are negatively impacted by U of I's reduced stature, but you don't make that argument - you cite your own family who doesn't appear to be hurt by the status quo. When you end by saying "try to tell the kids of today that" the kids you are talking about are those top-flight students, not the others.

    As for the rankings I'd add a couple of other comments. Champaign, from what I can tell, is a poorly run institution. A few years ago the administration was poised to axe the one graduate school US News ranked as #1 in the country (library and information sicences) and merge it with the school of education in order to save money. (It was part of a woefully executed cost-cutting program with the Orwellian title "Shepparding Excellence" or somesuch thing). And while UIC's application process may have helped their rankings, I suspect the Great Recession helped as well: the school has some solid programs especially in STEM fields and for many Chicago area students the ability to live at home, take night classes while working, etc. may have been worth giving up some prestige.

    Finally, I can't name any Champaign professors, but I can name MOSAIC, basically the seminal web browser in internet history and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. I think Champaign suffers a bit from a pro-liberal arts bias in the US News rankings.

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  5. This is a pretty shoddy piece of work. If the U.S. News rankings is your metric, the Urbana campus (No. 41) still outranks UIC (No. 128).

    http://colleges.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-colleges/university-of-illinois-urbana-champaign-1775

    http://colleges.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-colleges/university-of-illinois-chicago-1776

    And Bill Ayers was a faculty member of the Chicago campus, not the Urbana campus.

    To refresh your memory:

    Controversial UIC professor denied emeritus status

    http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2010-09-24/news/ct-met-ayers-denied-emeritus-20100923_1_emeritus-status-university-of-illinois-trustees-robert-f-kennedy

    Is this the kind of "reporting" they teach at Northwestern?

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    1. As I've been out of NU 32 years, I believe the fault is mine, not theirs. Though, as the piece is about how U of I is perceived, I think the point stands.

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    2. I've amended it online. Though you are correct, it was an error, and I regret it.

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  6. I was there for a summer institute many years ago. While I was there, I saw them putting bunk beds in open rec rooms with no privacy or security. When I asked why, I was told that they wanted 100% of their dorm rooms occupied. They figured that by overbooking and putting kids in rec rooms that they wouldn't have to worry about occupancy rates even given that a number of students would leave during the first part of the academic year. Do they still pull that kind of stuff?

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  7. How to turn lunch conversations with a pal into a column - well done. Gene & Georgetti's? U of I grads also have a misplaced sense of their school as great, but it's certainly better than UIC.

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    1. Wrong, as usual. I only contacted Kennedy after I began writing the column, wanting to make sure it wasn't too negative.

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  8. I can't quite see what you're getting at with regard to the #41 ranking, Neil... That it's good and should be publicized more, or that it's too low to impress a high-achieving Illinois kid? To me, it seems pretty high, all things considered. It's tied with some others for 11th-highest among public universities, and 5 of those are in California. In other words, there are only 6 states that have higher-ranked public universities. And, for an in-state student, at about a third of the cost of some of the private schools. Since the top-ranked public school, UC-Berkeley, is only #20, those seeking out the real cream-of-the-crop, regardless of cost, probably wouldn't be considering state schools, anyway.

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    1. I guess I was just trying to round all the bases regarding U of I's rep. The key thing, which I didn't quite nail, is that kids can go to better schools for less. We're paying less to send Ross to Pomona, a private school Forbes rated No. 2 in the nation, than it would cost for him to go to U of I.

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    2. It seems like y'all must be getting a pretty good deal from Pomona, then. Good for him! I'm certainly in no position to debate about scholarship and/or financial aid packages, or whatever, but according to those U. S. News rankings that you referred to, (where Pomona is tied for fourth among "National Liberal Arts Colleges," for whatever that's worth,) the "tuition and fees" at Illinois would be 35% of what they supposedly are at Pomona.

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    3. Right, that's what this is all about. Other schools firehose money at students, so they go there, jilting U of I, which can't. That's kind of what the trustees are trying to figure out. I wasn't clear about it today -- too busy trying to work stuff in.

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    4. It will be interesting to see if year four at Pomona is the same cost for you as year one. I've heard many times that private schools make the first year cost competitive with public schools, but then in the last two years the scholarships/funding dries us. Since it would be difficult to transfer, the student ends up paying the higher tuition. Illinois Wesleyan was famous for this, at least in the 90s.

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  9. A real problem that UIUC needs to face is that we're a global community now. Students aren't interested in staying close to home. They grow up travelling and going to an out of state school isn't unusual. Most college students I know chose their school based on overall experience, as well as perceived academic excellence.

    UIUC can compete on academic excellence. We're near the top ranked school in a lot of majors and highly competitive in others. Where we lose out is in the global community competition. If you grow up in Illinois, it's not interesting to head to UIUC.

    Also, parents seems to have a lopsided opinion of UIUC admissions. I hear a lot of parents say that their child should be admitted to UIUC simply because they are a good student from Illinois. The school has always been highly competitive. It has never been easy to get into Illinois. UIUC doesn't owe anyone in Illinois as education. You have to earn the admissions acceptance letter, just like you would at every other school.

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