October 25, 2012
By Riley Swinford
A highly ranked Illinois government official is working to find ways to make college more affordable for Illinois students.
Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon visited the university Oct. 15 to speak with students and faculty members as part of her College Affordability Summit tour across the state. Simon, who is Gov. Pat Quinn’s head of education reform, has visited seven of Illinois’ 12 public universities so far, and she will visit the remaining five within the next few weeks.
Simon is collecting ideas partly because of the governor’s plan to have 60 percent of its working-age population hold college credentials by 2025. She said only 41 percent of workers in the state have college credentials to date.
“We know one of the biggest barriers to (having more workers certified) is affordability,” Simon said in an Oct. 25. interview. “Obviously, the state plays a big role in that. We don’t anticipate having more money for higher education, so I’m focused on doing the best with the limited resources we have.”
Simon said her summits are also a way to build public support for public higher education.
“It is a really important investment for our state in terms of economic development,” she said. “We need to be competitive in the world, and higher education is the way to get us there.”
Simon, a former law professor at the university, said she enjoyed her visit to Carbondale because she was able to look at the campus with a different light now that she is the lieutenant governor.
Simon visited with students and helped prepare sandwiches with federal work study employees in Trueblood Dining Hall. She said she met with a variety of students on campus to get an idea of how much it takes students to make college affordable.
“People often think college students today aren’t very hard working,” Simon said. “Let me tell you this: Students in Carbondale are very hard working. That work ethic is still there.”
Kathryn Phillips, the chief of Simon’s staff, said meeting with students is the best way for Simon to understand college students’ problems today. Phillips said the state is trying to ensure students are graduating on time and with less debt.
“One of the items on students’ minds is the cost of college,” she said. “Costs have been going up and we think if we work together with state leaders, college leaders and federal leaders, we can make college more affordable.”
Along with SIU, Simon has visited Illinois State, Western Illinois, SIU-Edwardsville and University of Illinois campuses in Springfield, Urbana-Champgain and Chicago. She said she will visit Eastern Illinois, Governors
State, Northern Illinois, Chicago State and Northeastern Illinois soon.
Simon said she is learning all of the schools share challenges.
“All of the colleges recognize the challenge of affordability,” she said. “There’s nothing unique to students at SIUC who are struggling to pay for school. Students across the state are having that same problem.
Marcelo Tavares, a sophomore from Chicago studying radio-television, said he appreciates Simon’s efforts because college debts are unfair to already poor students.
“College students are already in a hole, and college costs only make that hole deeper,” he said. “There are costs we need to pay, but government subsidies aren’t a bad thing. Education should be more affordable.”
Jonah May, a senior from Rockford studying animal science, said he thinks the price of college is too high, and efforts from people like Simon are needed.
“I’ve seen the price of college going up, and I don’t see a lot of improvements,” he said. “I see teachers who are overworked and underpaid, credits going down and less and less opportunities. I don’t know what the answer is.”
Marissa Broze, a junior from Carbondale studying accounting, said college should be more affordable to help fix the nation’s unemployment rate.
“I think students need to pay something, but I don’t think it should be as high as it is now,” she said. “Students should have a lot more help so the burden isn’t all on them.”
Simon said she will summarize all of the information she has gathered and give it to the colleges after the summits are complete so they can learn from it. She said it will help the schools see what the others succeeded at, ranging from textbook rental and student fee policies.
“There are a lot of things we are learning along the way that we hope to share,” Simon said.
Simon visited all 48 community colleges in the state last year, and she will meet with officials and students at every Illinois public higher education institution by the end of this year.