ISU Freezes Tuition, Delays Projects Amid COVID-19 Uncertainty
Illinois State University trustees agreed Friday to freeze tuition and room and board for students for the 2020-21 academic year and delayed two construction projects as the pandemic causes more financial uncertainty for both the university and students.
Trustees also approved a series of fee increases that amount to an additional $487 per student.
ISU President Larry Dietz said the average cost of about $25,000 still places the university among the lower tier of public colleges in Illinois, while it receives the least amount of per-student aid from the state.
He noted the average cost increase is less than 2% while the university returned nearly $20 million to students in room and board and other fees after the campus closed in the spring.
Student Trustee Sarah Aguilar cast the only "no" vote, saying many students are still struggling financially due to the pandemic.
“It’s very difficult for many students,” Aguilar said. “That money will most likely be going toward food and toward necessities, probably not fees.”
ISU Board Chair Julie Jones said she understands the students’ concerns, but considers the additional funding vital. The higher fees would raise an additional $7.7 million for the university.
“We are very sensitive to the fact that we want to be an affordable university, but we also have to balance that with making sure that we keep the quality of the education on standard with what our students are used to receiving,” she said.
Return To ‘Normal’
Dietz told trustees the university has 16 working groups studying how and when the university may be able to reopen its campus to students and staff. He said ISU is preparing for a June 1 opening, should the state move to reopen its economy.
He said it’s still too soon to tell whether students will be able to return for the fall semester, but he added the next 30 days will likely be crucial in determining those prospects. He didn’t say what specific metrics the university will be looking at in determining its plans, but said the status of Gov. JB Pritzker’s Restore Illinois plan will be a factor as well as how other colleges and universities plan for the next school year.
“I wish I had a cleared crystal ball on this, but I don’t,” he said.
Dietz said the university is preparing for a wide range of possible scenarios, including a hybrid system where some classes can be taken in person and others would be online. He said a working group is looking to determine if would be feasible for a student to take a full course load remotely if students are back on campus.
“I think we’ve shown we’re nimble enough to make all kinds of changes and the faculty has responded very well on this as have the students,” Dietz said. “I think the future bodes well for us.”
Dietz said it’s also unclear how social-distancing restrictions could limit student housing. Some schools are considering going to single-occupancy dorms, a move that could considerably limit student housing.
He said while student retention for the fall semester appears to be on par with previous years, he noted deposits from incoming freshmen and transfers are down close to 1,000. He added that pushing the deposit deadline back from May 1 to June 1 may play a factor in the lower registrations.
“We’re down a little bit right now, but we anticipate those numbers will increase as we get closer to the fall,” Dietz said.
Projects On Hold
Trustees took no action on two proposed capital projects, citing the financial uncertainty caused by the pandemic.
The university is looking to build a $6.7 million Student Success Center on the first floor of Milner Library. The facility would offer student tutoring, advising, technology support and other services. ISU also is proposing a $4 million replacement of the Felmley Science Annex greenhouse that opened in 1964. Dietz said the building has fallen into disrepair, lacks ADA accessibility and is no longer being used for instruction or research.
Trustee Mary Ann Louderback suggested the board revisit these projects once it has a clearer picture of its finances and needs.
"I think it would be all different if we didn’t have this coronavirus and everything is up in the air,” Louderback said. “I don’t have a problem with any of the projects, it’s just which one do we really need to do right now.”
Trustees approved extending ISU's contract with Connect Transit through the end of the year as the university doesn’t anticipate negotiations on a new contract will be complete before the current deal expires in June. Through the extension, ISU would pay the transit service $295,000 over the final six months of the contract, marking a 4% increase. The contract enables ISU students to ride Connect buses for free.
Connect Transit has waived all rider fees during the pandemic.
Trustees also approved updating Dietz’s contract through the end of the December. Jones said the pandemic derailed contract negotiations.
“Just as everything has been thrown for a loop, it was our intention to have this wrapped up prior to the contract expiration, but COVID-19 had other plans for our lives," she said.
Dietz’s annual salary of $375,000 will be prorated for an additional six months.
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