The Fight For Free College Moves to the States

How student organizers and a state representative are campaigning to eliminate tuition in Illinois.

Jeff Schuhrke

State Rep. Will Guzzardi speaks at the campaign launch event for Tuition Free Illinois in Chicago. (Tuition Free Illinois)

Stand­ing before a crowd of about 200 col­lege stu­dents at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go, 98-year-old Bea Lump­kin recount­ed her own col­lege expe­ri­ence in New York in the 1930s.

“Senator Sanders’ campaign really opened the door to this discussion. Free tuition is now really part of the mainstream national dialogue.”

It was the bot­tom of the Great Depres­sion,” the life­long activist said at the Octo­ber 7 gath­er­ing, and her fam­i­ly was on wel­fare. Still, I was able to attend Hunter Col­lege for four years and earn a BA degree, and I did not have to bor­row the tuition mon­ey. That’s because the city col­leges used to be tuition-free.”

Lump­kin, a mem­ber of the Illi­nois Alliance for Retired Amer­i­cans (IARA), an advo­ca­cy group rep­re­sent­ing retired union mem­bers, said her grand-sons have had a marked­ly differ­ent expe­ri­ence. They have huge stu­dent loan debts, and I feel their bur­den,” she said. It’s time to regain free tuition!”

Lump­kin was speak­ing at the launch event for Tuition Free Illi­nois, an ambi­tious new cam­paign that’s try­ing to make change hap­pen on the state lev­el, regard­less of who’s in pow­er in Wash­ing­ton. The coali­tion aims to make two-year and four-year pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties in Illi­nois free to in-state res­i­dents, regard­less of income or immi­gra­tion sta­tus. The aver­age annu­al cost of tuition and fees at the state’s 12 pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties is cur­rent­ly about $14,000, up from $7,900 in 2007. Col­lege stu­dents in the state (includ­ing those who attend pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties) grad­u­ate with an aver­age debt of $28,984, slight­ly high­er than the nation­al average.

The cam­paign is the brain­child of 29-year-old state Rep. Will Guz­zar­di. The ini­tia­tive is backed by a coali­tion of stu­dent orga­ni­za­tions, includ­ing Chica­go Stu­dent Action (CSA), Chica­go Votes, Young Chica­go Authors and Col­lege Democ­rats of Illi­nois, which plans to mobi­lize around leg­is­la­tion that Guz­zar­di is set to intro­duce next year.

Illi­nois pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties are fac­ing an unprece­dent­ed cri­sis. Upon tak­ing office last year, Repub­li­can Gov. Bruce Rauner pro­posed cut­ting state fund­ing to high­er edu­ca­tion by 31 per­cent. The governor’s oth­er bud­get pro­pos­als — includ­ing a series of anti-work­er mea­sures — trig­gered an impasse with Demo­c­ra­t­ic leg­is­la­tors, and the state failed to pass a bud­get for fiscal year 2016, leav­ing pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties with­out state fund­ing for the 2015 – 2016 aca­d­e­m­ic year.

The Mon­e­tary Award Pro­gram (MAP), a state grant that helps work­ing-class stu­dents pay for tuition, also went unfund­ed for a year. A tem­po­rary stop­gap bud­get passed this sum­mer has kept pub­lic col­leges and the MAP grant alive — but only just.

As a result of the bud­get cri­sis, enroll­ments at Illi­nois pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties have dropped dra­mat­i­cal­ly. For exam­ple, Chica­go State Uni­ver­si­ty (CSU) has seen its num­ber of incom­ing fresh­men plum­met by 25 per­cent, with just 86 new stu­dents enrolling this fall. Mean­while, fac­ul­ty and staff have been sig­nifi­cant­ly down­sized. Ear­li­er this year, CSU laid off a third of its staff and East­ern Illi­nois Uni­ver­si­ty (EIU) let go of near­ly 200 employ­ees. This has left stu­dents and their fam­i­lies won­der­ing whether small­er insti­tu­tions like CSU and EIU will be per­ma­nent­ly closed.

To Guz­zar­di, go[ing] back to the way things were” before the cri­sis isn’t enough. The dam­age has been done,” he says. We need to trans­form the way pub­lic edu­ca­tion in Illi­nois works.”

Sen­a­tor Sanders’ [pres­i­den­tial] cam­paign real­ly opened the door to this dis­cus­sion,” he adds. Free tuition is now real­ly part of the main­stream nation­al dialogue.”

Bec­ca Woj­ci­c­ki, a junior at Roo­sevelt Uni­ver­si­ty and an activist with CSA, a mul­ti-issue advo­ca­cy group with chap­ters on six cam­pus­es, has felt the impact of the cri­sis in high­er edu­ca­tion. In addi­tion to hav­ing $30,000 in stu­dent loan debt, Woj­ci­c­ki relies on the MAP grant to fund her edu­ca­tion. Because of the uncer­tain­ty caused by the state bud­get impasse, she didn’t know that she would have MAP funds until just one week before the cur­rent aca­d­e­m­ic year began. With­out the grant, she would have had to bor­row anoth­er $4,000.

It’s real­ly been caus­ing a lot of emo­tion­al stress along with finan­cial stress,” Woj­ci­c­ki says. That’s some­thing I don’t think is right, espe­cial­ly in a state with very wealthy peo­ple who could be fund­ing this through pro­gres­sive tax­a­tion. This isn’t some­thing any stu­dent should have to go through.”

Illi­nois is one of the only states in the coun­try with a flat income tax rate — some­thing activists say needs to change. Illi­nois is not broke. It is time for the wealthy to pay their fair share, so that edu­ca­tion can be a right for all peo­ple,” Eri­ca Nan­ton, a recent Roo­sevelt grad­u­ate, told the audi­ence at the Tuition Free Illi­nois launch.

Specifi­cal­ly, Guz­zar­di plans to intro­duce leg­is­la­tion ear­ly next year that would enact some com­bi­na­tion of a pro­gres­sive income tax, a finan­cial trans­ac­tions tax and a millionaire’s sur­tax, which would impose a 3 per­cent tax increase on any­one with a year­ly income over $1 mil­lion. A non­bind­ing ref­er­en­dum call­ing for the lat­ter was approved by more than 60 per­cent of Illi­nois vot­ers in 2014.

If Illi­nois had the same pro­gres­sive income tax rates as neigh­bor­ing Wis­con­sin, Guz­zar­di argues, the state would bring in $11 bil­lion in new rev­enue every year. This would be more than enough to close the $5 bil­lion state bud­get defic­it and cov­er the $2 bil­lion Illi­nois stu­dents pay in in-state tuition at pub­lic col­leges. It’s not mag­ic, it’s not utopia — it’s Wis­con­sin,” Guz­zar­di said at the cam­paign launch.

In addi­tion to intro­duc­ing leg­is­la­tion, Guz­zar­di promis­es that in the com­ing months, he will trav­el to col­lege cam­pus­es across the state to build a net­work of activists and cir­cu­late a statewide peti­tion for tuition-free pub­lic high­er edu­ca­tion to put pres­sure on the state government.

On Octo­ber 24, as part of their Reclaim High­er Ed” cam­paign, CSA held a ral­ly of more than 100 demon­stra­tors to protest bil­lion­aire hedge fund man­ag­er Ken Griffin, a trustee of the Art Insti­tute of Chica­go and Rauner’s largest cam­paign con­trib­u­tor. In front of the Insti­tute, eight stu­dent pro­test­ers dressed in caps and gowns blocked rush hour traffic on Michi­gan Avenue for near­ly 30 min­utes before police arrest­ed them.

While the action was not for­mal­ly part of the Tuition Free Illi­nois ini­tia­tive, it shared the goal of elim­i­nat­ing tuition and mak­ing edu­ca­tion free and acces­si­ble to all stu­dents in Illi­nois as a fun­da­men­tal human right,” says Ken­zo Esquiv­el, a CSA activist and Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go student. 

Par­tic­i­pat­ing in civ­il dis­obe­di­ence is our only way to reach Grifin and Rauner and to get them to hear what we’re say­ing,” says Esquivel.

At the Octo­ber 7 launch event, the nona­ge­nar­i­an Lump­kin had remind­ed young activists that pro­gres­sive vic­to­ries, from Social Secu­ri­ty to tuition-free col­lege, have nev­er come with­out a struggle.

Don’t believe that Pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo­sevelt — great as he was — gave’ us the safe­ty net,” she advised. We fought for it. Peo­ple just like you. And we won. And that’s exact­ly what we have to do today.”

Jeff Schuhrke has been a Work­ing In These Times con­trib­u­tor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in His­to­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go and a Master’s in Labor Stud­ies from UMass Amherst. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @JeffSchuhrke

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