This article first appeared in the Feb. 7 Issue of the Wednesday Journal.
Community college districts are required by state law to provide inexpensive, quality education opportunities to all district residents who want it. Some critics are contending, however, that “inexpensive” may be trumping “quality” at Triton College.
A Triton student charged last Tuesday night that the Triton Board of Trustees has allowed excessively low tuition to damage the learning environment at the River Grove campus.
Lisa Feldman confronted the board at their Jan. 23 board meeting and complained pointedly-and at times angrily-that classes are being conducted by unqualified or unprepared teachers. That state of affairs, Feldman suggested, stems from inadequate revenues, particularly from tuition. Triton currently charges $56 per semester hour, the lowest rate of any junior college in northern Illinois, and one of the lowest tuition rates in the state.
A yearly tax levy and tuition are the two main ways to raise revenues that the Triton board directly controls. Other revenues come from state and federal funding, which have decreased in recent years.
Triton has not increased their levy nor their tuition in several years.
Feldman’s comments also underscore the contention by numerous faculty members that the college is slow to hire replacement teachers and other instructors, and is hiring more and more adjunct, or part-time, staff. That, in turn, she argued, has led to classes being cancelled despite strong interest from students.
“Triton is not a restaurant,” she told the board, “and classes that are scheduled to run are not ‘catches of the day’ that one can just run out of and be taken off the menu.”
Calling the Triton faculty “natural resources,” Feldman told the board that the only way to improve Triton was to use the teachers properly, and to raise tuition to a level that supported the needs of the school.
“Each of you sitting on this board has been elected to ensure Triton’s students and reputation are held in the highest regard,” said Feldman. “For those that believe that [by] charging $56 a credit [hour], you are doing a service to the students and the community, I am here to tell you, you are wrong-dead wrong. You degrade the reputation of this institution, making Triton a cheap, bottom-of-the-barrel institution, instead of a first class institution.”
The result over the years, she said, is a frustrated and angry student population.
“‘You get what you pay for’ echoes the halls of Triton,” Feldman added. “Quality comes with a price.”
When Feldman finished, Triton Board Chairman Mark Stevens responded to her contentions by saying that the college was committed to keeping tuition affordable for segments of Triton’s population that might be more financially challenged.
“We try to maintain a [tuition] level that is affordable district-wide,” Stephens said. Noting that there are [25 communities] in the college’s district, he added, “Some of them are in different socio-economic levels than others.”
Retired 30-year Triton veteran John Mueller, who now teaches one film history course a year there, said he supports Feldman’s point of view.
“I think, in general, it’s difficult to hire and retain staff at the rate [Triton] pays,” he said. Mueller said he still teaches that one course a year at the school simply because he loves to do it. But sometimes he wonders if it’s worth it.
“The [pay] rate is so low, it almost makes me want to say, ‘Why bother,'” he said.
Mueller said that while he agrees with Stephens’ contention that a community college district is required to provide education to all who need it, there are other factors to take into consideration.
“A [community] college has to serve the district and provide inexpensive, quality education,” he said. “But if you’re charging low tuition, you’re running a bare-bones institution. That’s not good for any institution.”
Such a situation, Mueller said, undercuts crucial support for the instructional efforts of the teachers.
One longtime Triton observer and critic said that Stephens and the Triton board have been catering to one segment of the school’s client base in particular in recent years.
“The Stephens aren’t stupid, especially politically,” said the observer, who asked to remain anonymous. “They [know] where their base is, and that’s in Leyden Township.”
That base, the observer said, is increasingly Hispanic and lower income.
“If you look at the demographics the past 10 years, Melrose Park and parts of Franklin Park and Schiller Park are becoming increasingly Hispanic.”
Asked if the board might possibly be unfairly characterized in the current dispute, The Merriam-Webster dictionary, in fact, defines “collegial” as “marked by power or authority vested equally in each of a number of colleagues,” and “characterized by equal sharing of authority.”
Running a college, Mueller noted, requires teamwork, adding, “That doesn’t happen dictated from the top. And it doesn’t happen mandated from the bottom.”
Stephens did not return calls for comment despite numerous messages left with Triton staff.