Tuition To Rise At City Colleges

Students at Chicago’s community college network, ultimately overseen by Mayor Emanuel, are hit with big hikes in what they pay to take classes.

City Colleges Chancellor Cheryl Hyman (L) Mayor Rahm Emanuel (R)

The board of trustees governing City Colleges of Chicago approved a budget plan Thursday that dramatically raises tuition on the largely low-income student body.

Most if not all students can expect to pay at least $200 more per semester, starting with the upcoming school year.

But how City Colleges officials publicized the tuition changes in some ways drew more controversy.

There was only one budget hearing for the public, on June 29, and many students and faculty only learned of the proposed changes through an email sent by the college system earlier this week, after a holiday weekend and in the heart of summer.

In releasing a financial analysis Wednesday, the nonprofit Civic Federation said the community college network should have communicated proposed tuition changes to students sooner – a sentiment echoed by Jessi Choe, a humanities instructor at Wright College on Northwest Side who spoke up Thursday at the board meeting.

"To make this decision in the summertime when a lot of people are on vacation and to sneak in an email 1.5 days before the board is set to vote on this, I call that wrong," Choe said.

Jennifer Alexander, chairwoman of the Faculty Council, said her group received no information about the tuition changes until this week’s email and therefore had no time to discuss things collectively.

Students who take one class – about 15 percent of all students in the 2014-2015 school year – will see a $250 tuition hike, from $349 to $599 per semester, according to the budget.

Students taking between six and 11 credit hours – usually two to four classes – will pay $225 more per semester.

Students taking 12 or more credit hours will pay $200 more. This is considered full time, and roughly 40 percent of City Colleges students fit into this category, but City Colleges officials want to see that number grow, so the tuition structure is designed with that in mind, officials said.

At the same time, City Colleges students will no longer have to pay a number of fees – though with the tuition hikes most students will still be paying more in the 2015-2016 school year than the school year that just ended. On average, students will be paying an additional $200 or more per semester overall, according to City Colleges, which oversees seven community colleges in the city, including Wright.

The tuition increases are expected to generate at least $12 million in revenue.

City Colleges Board President Paula Wolff said Thursday that board members were each previously briefed on the budget and asked questions in those sessions. But they did not have any discussion at Thursday’s public meeting and passed the tuition hike unanimously through one vote on all board agenda items.

Chancellor Cheryl Hyman, the system’s top administrator, would not answer questions from the Better Government Association on Thursday, with her press aides directing a reporter to previous statements about how City Colleges will still be less expensive for Chicago residents than other area community colleges.

Wright student Mary Beth Nick spoke out at Thursday’s board meeting, calling the new tuition structure unfair, particularly for part-time students.

"Under this proposed plan, City College students will be penalized for having complicated lives," Nick said. "They will pay more if they cannot take the full complement of classes because they have personal health setbacks, sick children, divorcing spouses, elderly parents, unhelpful bosses, anything of that nature."

The Civic Federation, a fiscal watchdog, indicated support for the budget on the whole, but also expressed concern that the tuition hikes might drive down enrollment rather than – as City Colleges wants – increase the number of full-time students.

City Colleges officials say the tuition increases are necessary to offset decreases in state funding and a continued drop in enrollment. About 2.5 percent fewer students enrolled in City Colleges credit programs in 2014-2015 compared to the prior school year.

Roughly 115,000 students attend City Colleges – which ultimately is overseen by Mayor Rahm Emanuel – through the year. About 80 percent of the student population receives federal Pell grants, which are geared toward lower-income students, to help with costs, a City Colleges spokeswoman said.

This is the first tuition hike under Emanuel, who took office in 2011.

The budget does not impose a property tax increase. The total City Colleges budget is about $700 million.

This story was written and reported by the Better Government Association’s Sarah Karp, who can be reached at (312) 525-3483 or skarp@bettergov.org.