Low funding for higher education

Tuition now carrying 60 percent of regent school budgets

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Student tuition dollars represented nearly 60 percent of total public higher education budgets last year in Iowa, ranking 10th highest in the nation.

As state funding for educational budgets has declined, the tuition portion of the formula has climbed at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa. Higher education leaders have sounded the warning bell for years, and they say the sweeping cuts to UNI academic programs is a result of state funding not keeping pace.

“I think there’s a real understanding that the cuts have consequences,” said Board of Regents President Craig Lang of Brooklyn.

Some on the other side of the argument, however, say universities must find efficiencies and make smarter fiscal decisions.

Rep. Jeff Kaufmann, R-Wilton, said for some House Republicans — who have proposed a roughly $31 million cut to the regent universities and a tuition freeze for next year — “our problem isn’t the dollars, the state funding. We’re willing to look at that.”

The House speaker pro tempore said it’s a trust and transparency issue, regarding salary increases for administrators and the tuition set-aside program, which uses tuition proceeds for scholarships.

“They absolutely refuse to look at wrongheaded, fiscally irresponsible decision-making that’s going on under their watch, and House Republicans have had it,” Kaufmann said.

The battle over next year’s funding continues to play out in the Legislature. Gov. Terry Branstad lashed out Monday, saying House Republicans should not insert themselves into Board of Regents tuition decisions.

Iowa is not alone in the decline of state funding toward higher education budgets, but the level that tuition represents in Iowa is among the highest in the country, according to the annual study released this month by the State Higher Education Executive Officers.

The study includes public community colleges in the data, and Iowa’s 15 community colleges have seen the same trend as regent institutions.

In 2001, state funding was about 64 percent of the education budgets at the UI, ISU and UNI, while tuition was 31 percent. Those numbers have basically swapped in the past decade, with tuition at 58.3 percent of the funding and state appropriations at 35.7 percent in the current fiscal year.

Iowa also had the largest five-year decline on average when compared with neighboring Midwest states. Iowa’s public institutions received $4,481 per full-time student in fiscal 2011, a 25.3 percent decline since 2006, according to the report.

The national average in 2011 was $6,290 state dollars per full-time student, the lowest level of support in 25 years, according to the report.

“It’s an unfortunate trend. The whole idea of public higher education is something that’s affordable,” said Sen. Bob Dvorsky, a Coralville Democrat. “This really undercuts that.”

Dvorsky, co-chairman of the appropriations committee, said that historically, Iowa has tried to keep appropriations at a level that allows tuition to be less than 50 percent of university budgets, even closer to 30 percent or 40 percent.

The UNI cuts approved by the regents are a direct result of inadequate state funding, Dvorsky said.

UNI faculty leaders opposed to program reductions have argued the university does not have a fiscal crisis but rather a crisis of priorities. They question UNI’s administrative numbers and why more cuts aren’t made to non-academic areas, such as athletics.

University leaders said the eliminated academic programs graduate few students; they also said athletics and other non-academic functions have been cut. Because UNI is more reliant on in-state students than the UI and ISU, UNI officials say they want to shift focus to strong academic programs.

ISU and the UI also have reduced academic programs and hundreds of jobs through attrition and early retirements in recent years in response to state budget cuts, but the two universities are on more solid financial footing than UNI right now — because of large numbers of out-of-state students who pay more than double in tuition.

“We’ve been in ongoing program review. The academic programs are adjusting,” said Warren Madden, ISU vice president for business and finance. “I think the hope is that we have kind of reached the bottom of further reductions.”

Reversing the funding trend will take good back-and-forth with legislators and the advocacy of students, graduates and supporters of the universities, said Regents President Lang said. A student-led, nine-community roadshow promoting the importance of the universities kicks off April 2 in Des Moines.

The regents also asked ISU and UI officials to look at programs with few graduates — similar to what UNI did — in working to find more efficiencies, Lang said.

“If the universities are being run correctly, if there’s openness and transparency, lawmakers understand were dollars are spent, then it’s important for the state to own 51 percent of that total funding. Not 38 percent but 51 percent,” Lang said.

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