Costs per student rising at Iowa universities

Institutions set to unveil 5-year tuition proposals

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IOWA CITY — The cost of educating students at Iowa’s public universities has been steadily rising in recent years — a trend the institutions have cited as they clamor for more resources.

A new report issued by the state auditor’s office shows University of Iowa’s instruction-related cost per full-time student in the 2016 budget year reached $20,112 — 14 percent higher than the $17,646 in the 2012 budget year.

The auditor’s office is working on new reports for Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa, expecting to publish those over the next few weeks. But past reports for those schools show costs-per-student, likewise, are climbing.

Iowa State’s cost-per-student for the 2015 budget year was $13,453, according to the auditor’s calculations, up 7 percent from $12,629 in the 2012 budget year. UNI’s cost-per-student in 2015 was $14,960, 28 percent above the $11,666 in 2012, according to the auditor’s office.

The state auditor calculations differ slightly from “unit cost of instruction” reports the universities produce every other year for the Board of Regents. But the universities are reporting similar trends, although less severe, with a more than 4 percent increase in per-student costs from 2013 to 2015 at UI and ISU, and a 14 percent jump in the unit cost of instruction at UNI during that time period.

Iowa’s university presidents for years have cited the rising cost of providing quality education in their pitch to lawmakers for more state support. But those arguments didn’t persuade in the last Legislative session, as the state took back $20.8 million from the three universities’ general education funds and then further cut appropriations by $9.6 million for the budget year that started July 1.

In response to the cuts, the Board of Regents hiked tuition across the board — resident undergraduates on all three campuses will pay 5 percent more this fall than last. And the board this summer has formed a tuition task force, calling on university presidents to craft five-year tuition plans.

The institutional heads will unveil those plans over the next two weeks — UNI’s presentation is scheduled for Monday, Iowa State’s will occur Wednesday, and UI’s presentation is set for Aug. 14. The presidents have hinted they could present differential tuition models creating a wider gap in rates not only for non-resident and graduate students on the different campuses but among resident undergraduates — who historically have paid about the same at UI, ISU, and UNI.

The argument for higher rates at UI, for example, goes back to the cost of instruction.

“Certain majors or programs are more expensive to provide than others,” UI spokesman Jeneane Beck told The Gazette on Friday. “Particularly those that require state-of-the-art laboratory space and research equipment or highly specialized faculty.”

Board of Regents reports note the unit cost of instruction includes fixed costs — like research, library books, plant operations, and equipment expenses that are expected to remain stable — and variable costs, including those for direct instruction, general administration, and student services.

The Board of Regents in recent years has approved differential tuition models within each university system — with students in costlier programs, like dentistry or veterinary medicine, paying more than say undergraduate liberal arts students.

Iowa State, specifically, has instituted a differential tuition structure in five programs — animal science, biology, computer science, industrial design, and natural resource ecology and management — and interim ISU President Ben Allen justified the need for those higher rates during a regents meeting this week.

“These new dollars will support the higher instructional costs associated with these fields in order to maintain the excellence of these programs,” he said.

The Board of Regents earlier this week approved a 2018 budget showing Iowa State expects $26 million more from tuition this year, UI projects $17.6 million more, and UNI anticipates a $2.6 million tuition-revenue increase.

Like at Iowa State, UI President Bruce Harreld said a portion of the tuition revenue will go toward “innovative programs that will positively impact our strategic plan” and have the “greatest influence on our future.”

As the cost-per-student figure continues to go up, Harreld told regents this week, his institution is doing what it can to be efficient with its limited resources. Specifically, he cited an American Council of Trustees and Alumni report on administrative spending as a percentage of instructional support.

The higher a school’s ratio, according to the report, the greater the proportion of spending on administration relative to instruction. The average ratio for an institution like UI is .17, Harreld said.

“I am happy to report that the UI’s ratio is .136, significantly below the national average,” he said. “This is just more evidence that the UI is aggressively managing overhead costs down while investing in our academic mission.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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