Will we lose tuition waivers for our kids?

Unfortunately, this is a valid question for workers at the University of Illinois. The News-Gazette reports that legislation has been introduced to get rid of the fifty percent tuition waivers that Illinois employees can use for their children if they work here for seven years or more. They write:

State law allows employees who have worked for one of the Illinois’ public universities for seven or more years to receive a 50 percent waiver of their children’s tuition costs.

Employees would lose that benefit if legislation (HB 4706) introduced earlier this month by state Rep. Dave Winters, R-Rockford, is eventually signed into law.

“I think a lot of the universities have been using this as part of their compensation package,” said state Rep. Naomi Jakobsson, D-Urbana. “Taking away a part of their offer is not something I can support.”

Randy Kangas, director of the UI system’s office for planning and budgeting, said 942 of these tuition waivers were issued in fiscal 2009, totaling $3,981,600 of revenue the university never realized.

Most of those, 722 waivers, were issued for students at the Urbana-Champaign campus, erasing $3,254,800 that would have been added to the campus’ budget.

UI officials are saying they will need time to discuss the bill with state representatives before they develop any particular position.

Jakobsson and UI spokesman Tom Hardy said they had not spoken with Winters to determine his motive, and Winters did not return several calls from The News-Gazette to his offices on Friday. But Jakobsson said there might be a better way if it is a budget issue.

“If we stop giving legislative scholarships, it would add more than” the $4 million, Jakobsson said.

Every year, each of the state’s 177 legislators are permitted to issue up to eight years’ worth of full tuition waivers to students wishing to attend any of the state’s universities. The only prerequisite is that the student live in the legislator’s district.

The program has drawn scrutiny over the years – from The News-Gazette and other news organizations – after some legislators were found to have been giving the scholarships to children of political contributors. A bill introduced by Jakobsson to kill the program was defeated in 2003.

Eliminating the program “would be a better way to find $4 million,” Jakobsson said. She added that she opts not to dole out the tuition waivers.

A bit miffed, I tweeted:

University of Illinois officials want to take away employee benefit of tuition waivers for our children

And linked to the News-Gazette story. Janet Stemwedel, Associate Professor of Philosophy at San Jose State University and also known as the ever-clever Dr. Free-Ride of Adventures in Ethics and Science, picked up on the story and wrote a blog post herself:

Some universities (public ones and private ones) offer tuition waivers to family members of their employees. Where they are offered, tuition waivers are a part of the compensation package that is usually meant to be a counterweight to a salary that is lower than one might have liked. Health insurance and pensions (where they exist) work this way, too. If the benefit is not offered as part of the compensation package, the potential hire might (or should) sit down and calculate what those additional costs (to buy insurance, save for retirement, pay for a child’s college education) will be, and whether it is plausible to cover them on the salary being offered.

Tuition waivers may not be a big deal for potential employees who have no children (and have no intention of having children), but for those who do, they may be part of the calculation of whether one offer of employment is better or worse than another. They might also be a data point in sussing out whether a university is a family friendly work environment.(emphasis mine)

I think her point about the tuition waivers helping to create a family friendly environment is an important one. Illinois prides itself on creating a good environment for families — they have a great dual career program, are generous with their tenure rollbacks, and in my experience treat parents and non-parents, dual hires and regular hires equally. This is part of the reason getting rid of these waivers would be such a big mistake for Illinois.

And finally, Chad Orzel, Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Union College who writes at Uncertain Principles weighed in on the topic, because of a comment on Dr. Free-Ride’s post regarding whether waivers are fair to folks without kids:

It takes no time at all for the “Tuition benefits are unfair to people without kids” argument to pop up in comments. This is, as always, pretty stupid, because the same logic leads to thinking that health insurance benefits are unfair to people who don’t become catastrophically ill. Tuition benefits are basically kid insurance– it’s a commitment to employees of an educational institution to compensate for lower salary, guaranteeing that even though they are not being paid as much as they might earn elsewhere, should they have children, they will be able to provide those children with a good education.

And that’s the real problem, here. In a sense, the current employees of the University of Illinois have already “paid into” the system– they have worked for less for the last several years, and planned their investments, with the understanding that their children would be provided for. In the absence of the benefit, they might have chosen to work elsewhere, and they certainly would have handled their finances differently.

….

This general class of problem is not unique to academia, of course. You see the same thing in the business world– businesses who have traded generous benefits for lower salaries, who find themselves strapped for cash, and start attacking the benefits of their employees (or, worse yet, their retirees). This was a big part of GM’s problems, for example. Sadly, the solution always seems to end up screwing the employees, who have less money and power.

….

In the general case, I have essentially zero sympathy for managers and administrators who paint their institutions into this kind of corner. They made the choice to buy employees off with generous benefits that they didn’t think would end up costing them anything, and while it looked great on the balance sheet in the short term, it’s blown up in their faces long-term. They deserve to sweat and squirm for a bit, but they should not be able to renege on their commitment to their employees. (emphasis mine)

So, what do you think of the possible repeal of our tuition waivers for our children? What should we be doing about it?

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