Tuition-Free Illinois movement to kick off at University of Illinois Chicago

By Jean Lotus Staff reporter
Brianna Tong of Chicago Student Action.

Brianna Tong of Chicago Student Action.

A rookie Illinois lawmaker is proposing free public university tuition in Illinois as part of a new Democrat agenda to “help working people and build a better quality of life,” he said in a kickoff phone call for the Tuition Free Illinois campaign. A kickoff event will take place at University of Illinois Chicago on Friday Oct. 7.

State Rep. Will Guzzardi  (D-Logan Square) told call participants Sept. 29 the cost would be about $2 billion to guarantee free tuition at public 2- and 4-year colleges in Illinois for in-state residents.

“College costs are a tremendous burden on our economy. Young people spend the first 15 years of life after college paying back student loans,” Guzzardi said.

How to pay for it in a state with a $26 billion deficit? Guzzardi said he believed the money was there, if politicians had the will to pass new taxes.

Guzzardi cited 2014 voter support for a millionaire tax surcharge, which he supports. He said a graduated income tax similar to neighboring Wisconsin’s would raise up to $11 billion. He also suggested “closing some corporate tax loopholes for corporations that don’t pay any tax in Illinois.”

“Illinois is a profoundly wealthy state, one of the fifth wealthiest in the country, similar to [the GDPs] of Saudi Arabia and Argentina,” Guzzardi said. “We simply don’t do a good job of bringing that wealth into the public sector.”

Guzzardi has specified that some loopholes could include removing the double tax break for federal deductions on depreciation and domestic production, i.e. not giving a state tax break for companies who already get a federal deduction for aging assets or for producing products in the U.S. He has also proposed expanding the corporate tax share by eliminating the state Single Sales Factor, and expanding to a “three-factor” tax calculation, as other states have done. This means corporations would be taxed on income from property, payroll and sales instead of only sales.

Guzzardi told a radio interviewer last month he wanted to help create a vision for the Illinois Democrats based on the progressive platform of the national Democrat party. Candidate Bernie Sanders inspired younger voters during the national Democratic primaries when he campaigned on free tuition nationwide, and Hillary Clinton’s platform includes “Debt-Free College.”

Right now, Illinois residents pay about $1.3 billion per year for in-state tuition and $700 for community colleges in Illinois, according to Tuition Free Illinois. The state of Illinois would be on the hook for grant funding to replace in-state tuition at each university, according to Guzzardi’s plan.

Tuition and fees at public universities can range between $12,000 at Chicago State University to more than $21,000 per year at University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana. Regional state universities in Illinois are a $7 billion industry and an economic engine for college towns, employing almost 53,000 Illinois residents, according to the Illinois Board of Higher Education.

State Rep. Will Guzzardi says he’ll propose a bill to the General Assembly in January urging free tuition at Illinois public universities. (Courtesy of Facebook)

State Rep. Will Guzzardi says he’ll propose a bill to the General Assembly in January urging free tuition at Illinois public universities. (Courtesy of Facebook)

Illinois experienced a freshman brain-drain in 2016 after public universities reported their enrollment in September. Chicago State University enrolled only around 85 students while Eastern Illinois and Southern Illinois University had 25 and 23 percent drops respectively in the numbers of freshmen enrolled. University of Illinois campuses at Springfield, Champaign-Urbana and Chicago had flat freshman enrollment.

“Higher education in Illinois is in danger of extinction,” Guzzardi said in a statement. “Because of the state budget crisis, we’re seeing declining student enrollment and an exodus of respected professors. Meanwhile, high tuition is crushing families with debt or keeping them out of higher education altogether.”

Guzzardi said his plan would reverse that trend.

“Send your kids to college for free would be a huge draw for the state,” he said.

Brianna Tong of Chicago Student Action said she was helping to organize events around the state, starting with the UIC kickoff rally. Tong has been profiled as a “Fired Up Millennial” in the Chicago Tribune. She said she hoped the tuition free movement would start in Illinois and spread nationwide.

“I see this as spearheading a statewide student movement and then becoming a national movement,” Tong said. “Worrying about paying for school is a central part of people’s college experience,” she said. “And some people can’t even go to [university] because of [costs.]”

Tong said the group would be throwing around ideas for collective student action such as coordinated walk-outs, tuition strikes or debt strikes. “The [student] debt system is connected to everything else in our state right now.”

Guzzardi said he hoped to tour the state’s public campuses starting a fire in the imaginations of young voters.

“The leadership of the Democratic Party may not be keen on this idea at the moment, but Democrats in Illinois are moved by public opinion,” he said.

The Tuition-Free Illinois kickoff rally will take place Oct. 7 at 6:30 p.m. at the UIC Forum.