top of page

Saving for a Brainy Day

College kids learn it takes money to make money

Illinois Times

September 12, 1991

Who should pay to send kids to college in Illinois? Families? Taxpayers? Students themselves? It's is as pressing a question of how much ought to be paid, and has been for some three decades now. 


The state's Student Assistance Commission has just announced yet another new program to help Illinois parents accumulate the money they will need to send the Future of America to college. Up to $6,000 of the interest earned on special savings accounts at participating banks will be exempt from state taxes (although federal income taxes would still apply). Cheaper to buy into than the state's existing zero coupon college savings bond program, the new plan should enable the little guy to sock away what he skims from the office coffee fund so that twenty years from now his kid can get an MBA and steal legally.


Measured in constant dollars, it was no more expensive to send a kid to an Illinois university in 1986 than it was in 1960; since 1986, however, the rise in real costs has begun to bite the middle class, especially that part of the middle class that decides what issues are Issues. Jim Nowlan, the new president of the Illinois Taxpayers Federation, has suggested that college costs were labeled a crisis around 1987 when "leading editorial writers [were] struck by the 'sticker shock' of the tuition charges they face for their children who want to go to expensive East Coast schools."


Demand for spots at the state's most expensive private four-year universities has not dropped markedly, however, in spite of their daunting tuition. Applications at Northwestern this year were up 25 percent since 1985, having set a record in 1987. Thus do we see illustrated the perverse economics of higher education: The value of a prestige degree increases as the costs of getting it goes up, since a posh degree is the best guarantee of earning a post-college income high enough to pay off those costs.


[Gov.] Jim Edgar went to Eastern [Illinois University], and look what he's having to do for a living.


I know. You don't buy only knowledge when you buy a degree. The top schools sell prestige, contacts, class. As Rebecca Dixon, Northwestern's director of enrollment, puts it, "Harvard costs more than Northwestern, in net costs. But you have to balance that higher cost against the prospects of a Harvard degree compared to a Northwestern degree." However, adds Ernest Pascarella, such advantages are much more modest than most people assume. Pascarella, who teaches educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, recently coauthored a survey of 2,600 studies of what students at different colleges and universities earn and learn. He concedes that an earnings advantage as small as 1 percent means significant bucks over a lifetime, but adds, "I'm not sure that's crucial." Were I a parent I would demand a refund from any university that taught my kid that cumulative earnings was the measure of a life.


College has become for the children of the middle class what the Army is for working class kids—something to fill those awkward years between high school and the first divorce, less a place to prepare for a productive life than to escape from one. Ronald Leglon is associate vice-chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and thus a man who is obliged to think deeply about such things. Says Leglon, "One could theorize that in poor economic times education itself becomes an attractive alternative to the job market."


In a recession, community college students who might have gone straight into a job often opt to stay in school. At the other end of the enrollment spectrum, graduate school applications have risen nationwide as jobless BAs and BSs seek a safe haven where loan repayments will be deferred while they wait for the job climate to improve. Thus we have the phenomenon of the double major, sought by students eager to protect themselves in a job market in flux; some private colleges in the East are offering premed programs for liberal arts majors in their 30s who are bored with their first careers or unable to find jobs that meet their income expectations.


Colleges are doing booming business training people for jobs that don't exist. Says Leglon, "We've seen a significant increase in the number of applicants, particularly from transfer students and graduate students. An amazing surge in fact. It's totally unexplained. We face a problem even processing them all."

These are dubious trends from the point of view of everyone who isn't a college admissions officer. More and more jobs these days require a college degree even though few of them require a college education. Academic lily-gilding keeps talented people out of productive work and adds to their personal debt (not to mention encumbering taxpayers with subsidies) for training that may be redundant or tangential to their ultimate career.


The old warning, “caveat emptor,” might protect more of our families from overspending—if we still taught Latin in high school and they understood what it says. In 1989, a skeptical Arnold Weber, Northwestern University's president, asked a Washington audience whether college consumers "are so ignorant that they cannot approximate the difference between tuition and the quality of education at different institutions." The answer, according to Pascarella, is, "You bet." His study concluded that like students do not learn significantly less at public colleges than they learn at equivalent private schools, other factors being equal.


Referring to the fact that undergrad tuition at top private schools runs twice the tab at the equivalent state schools, Pascarella says, "I remain skeptical that a kid who goes to U of I or Indiana gets an education that's only half as good as one he would get at Northwestern or Chicago." Family background and intelligence seem to matter much more in determining future success than even the most expensive college education. "If you took the incoming class of Harvard and distributed them randomly nationwide among all kinds of colleges and checked 20 years later," says Pascarella, "you'd still find a pretty successful bunch of people."


The moral: Spend on your kid's education at two-tenths of what an Ivy League degree costs when he's twenty and everybody looks like a genius. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

bottom of page