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ISU trustees approve tuition increase and engineering and data science majors

WGLT file
The Illinois State University Board of Trustees, seen here in February, approved tuition, fees, and room and board rates for the 2023-2024 academic year. Trustees approved a 2.7% overall cost increase over the previous year.

The sticker price to be an Illinois State University student is now a little bit more expensive after a Board of Trustees vote that increased tuition, fees and housing costs for new students next year.

Trustees during a regularly scheduled meeting Friday morning approved a 1.9% increase in tuition and fees for incoming freshman and new graduate students for the 2023-24 academic year.

The 1.9% increase in tuition puts ISU's per-credit-hour cost for in-state students at just over $402 an hour; the 1.9% increase in mandatory fees raises that figure to just over $113 per hour to fund, among other things, increases in counseling staff salaries, new programming and various needs at Bone Student Center.

Interim president Andover Tarhule told trustees the need to increase fees stemmed from institutional costs increasing faster than revenue.

"Even with this tuition increase, we're proposing that the university is still being pinched by a reduced margin of operations," he said.

Tarhule added that student financial aid is one of ISU's fastest-growing expenses, increasing from $25 million a year to about $47 million, currently. That figure has risen, he said, "with no increase in enrollment or credit hour generation."

The trustees' vote also approved a 4% increase in the cost of university housing and dining services, a measure that will affect between 5-6,000 students, most of them freshmen and sophomores.

Some student fee funding will go to new program

ISU Vice President for Student Affairs Levester Johnson said that the increased funding the university receives from mandatory fees will, in part, be directed to developing a new intervention program aimed at retaining students.

Called a co-responder program, Johnson said the goal is to pair case managers or counselors with ISU housing staff and ISU police to address "late-night issues that we have within our residential environments in order to support our students before we lose them."

"We [currently] have a system by which if housing staff is having a challenge and they don't have the counseling background, what they do then is outreach — maybe to counseling services, and maybe we have to call someone," Johnson explained to WGLT after the meeting. "Sometimes they have to call if it escalates to a point where ... they may have to call a police officer first. So in this case, they will tell one individual and then all three would then work together on the issue."

'Opportunities for cost savings' in ISU Athletics

Student trustee Aselimhe Ebikhumi noted Friday that the board was not approving any athletics fee increases despite additional costs in that department stemming from the addition of more teams to the Missouri Valley Conference.

Tarhule pledged during an Academic Senate meeting last month that the Athletics fee increase would be cancelled amid questions about department spending raised in WGLT reporting.

"There are still 450 students that have a greater need — for travel, for study, so on and so forth: The athletes, "Ebikhumi said. "That's about $1 million that we're losing now, without that fee increase. What are we going to do to kind of address that deficit?"

Vice President of Finance Dan Stephens said officials would "work with our Athletics division and examine their budgets and continue to see whether there are opportunities for cost savings — and to also look at some reserves that they may have."

"We are very confident that we'll be able to to absorb those costs as we work in kind of a partnership together," he added.

Differential tuition

Trustees also took a preliminary look at an amendment to their oversight guidelines that would allow them to set differing tuition rates for different programs.

Current language in the board's guidelines allows different tuition costs in only three circumstances, including undergraduate versus graduate rates and in-state versus out-of-state students. The amendment would allow trustees to set prices on top of base tuition depending on what program a student chooses.

Tarhule said this is a common university practice and named the University of Illinois system as a example. He said costs tend to be higher in departments where delivering the program itself requires more equipment or technology — like nursing and engineering.

"The students that graduate from those programs also make more money when they graduate, so we want to make sure that the people who are getting the benefits for these hardware costs are also paying a little bit more to cover their cost," he said. "So it's an overall comprehensive look at pricing strategy, tuition strategy, and not directly related to engineering — although engineering happens to be one of those programs that we would like to have a differential tuition for because it's more expensive."

The board may take a vote on the proposed amendment at its October meeting.

New degrees approved, some in engineering

ISU's College of Arts and Sciences will now offer a data science major after trustees' approval Friday. The program will be offered through the math department and is expected to draw 50-60 students each year, according to meeting documentation. Trustee approval followed the approval of the Academic Senate last month.

Trustees also voted to approve the creation of both an engineering and a mechanical engineering degree program. ISU has targeted a fall 2025 start date for those programs.

New trustee takes oath of office

Lia Merminga took her oath of office Friday morning, filling an open seat left by Robert Dobski. Merminga is currently the Laboratory Director for Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, a city south of Chicago.

ISU isn't Merminga's first stop in higher education: According to a news release, Merminga has served as an Adjunct Professor at the College of William and Mary, University of British Columbia, University of Victoria, and Stanford University in their departments of Physics and Astronomy.

Merminga was appointed to ISU's trustee board by Gov. JB Pritzker in February. Her appointment had been pending approval by the state Senate.

Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.