Iowa Gov. Reynolds vows 'we are committed' to higher education

Public universities pitch for more state support

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Gov. Kim Reynolds on Tuesday assured Iowa’s public universities that the state still wants to partner with them in preparing Iowans for the workforce — a reassurance the institutions were looking for after lawmakers in the last Legislative session cut their base appropriations more than $30 million.

But Reynolds didn’t specify what that partnership might look like in the upcoming 2019 budget year — including how much financial support the Board of Regents can expect. And she didn’t make any promises in response to the board’s appeal for $12 million more in general education dollars to be split among the University of Iowa, Iowa State University, and University of Northern Iowa campuses.

“We are entering another tough budget year,” Reynolds said Tuesday after each of the university presidents made their funding pitch during a hearing at the capitol. “But we are committed to working with you and continuing to provide the students you serve with a great education.”

She added funding might not come in the “timeline you want.”

“But we are committed,” she said.

During their presentations to Reynolds, the university presidents reiterated how they would use their portion of the $12 million funding increase — $5 million would go to both UI and ISU, and $2 million would go to UNI.

All three institutions vowed to use the bump in state support to provide need-based financial aid to resident undergraduate students. They painted a picture of budgetary partnership and collaboration with the state and with students by pointing to millions in campus savings and efficiencies that would supplement proposed funding and tuition increases.

Typically, by this time, the Board of Regents has aired proposed tuition rates for the next school year. But, after two years of last-minute increases following difficult legislative sessions, board President Mike Richards decided to delay the tuition debate — so not to, once again, set rates twice.

He told The Gazette on Tuesday the board plans to hold its first reading on tuition rates for the 2018-19 school year in February — after the new Legislative session begins. The hope, Richards said, is to have a better sense of state resources and priorities by that time.

“This year because of all the budgeting issues we thought it would be wise to wait and see,” he said.

Over the summer, UI and ISU leadership proposed 7 percent tuition increases for resident undergraduates every year for five years if lawmakers don’t increase appropriations. UNI proposed an annualized 5-percent hike over the same period under the same conditions.

Several regents — along with some students and members of the public — have said those hikes seem too steep, and regent leadership has focused on getting Legislative support to avoid the controversial increases.

In making their case for more state support Tuesday, university presidents reiterated their priorities and tied them to the state’s — specifically the push to bolster its workforce by increasing the percent of Iowans with postsecondary education from 58 percent to 70 percent by 2025.

“The State of Iowa needs stronger organic economic growth,” UI President Bruce Harreld said. “We believe the University of Iowa has an important role to play in delivering that goal, and our strategic plan directly aligns with making it happen.”

To achieve goals set out in its 2016-2021 strategic plan, Harreld said, the university must invest between $155 million and $165 million over five years in student success initiatives and faculty recruitment and retention efforts.

The university will cover a third of that through savings and efficiencies, leaving the rest to a combination of tuition and state aid — a good investment, Harreld argued.

“Our strategic plan specifically calls for increasing our four-year graduation rate to 60 percent, which is a 9-percentage point increase above our current four-year level,” Harreld said. “This increase would add over 300 more graduates each year into the Iowa workforce, assisting the state of achieving its goal of 70 percent postsecondary attainment and increasing state economic growth.” Countering legislative warnings of a tight budget year, Harreld argued the state must prioritize.

“A need to obtain postsecondary education is vital,” he said. “It’s not a question of if we can afford it, but a declaration of how our future is dependent on us affording it … A need to obtain postsecondary education is vital to the economic success of this state.”

With relatively strong median family incomes, Harreld said, Iowa does have the capacity to fund top-tier higher education.

“Are we a state that aspires to national averages and mediocrity? Or are we one that aspires to excellence?” he asked. “We have the resources. Do we have the will?”

During her first presentation to lawmakers since starting as Iowa State University President on Nov. 20, Wendy Wintersteen highlighted her institution’s burgeoning research park, which today boasts 82 companies and about 1,700 employees.

That park, she said, illustrates perfectly how Iowa’s universities can benefit its economy.

“We are the gateway to the cultivation corridor,” Wintersteen said. “We have built an entrepreneurial ecosystem, and we are going to be about building that entrepreneurial culture into our undergrad curriculum as well.”

That will meet a growing demand, she said, as the research park connects companies not only to ISU scientists but upcoming talent in the form of students working as interns on research projects and in the park’s offices.

“We believe the research park is really poised to triple in the next five to 10 years,” Wintersteen said.

In UNI’s pitch for more funding, President Mark Nook acknowledged its recruiting model needs to change. Promising his institution will continue to cut costs and find efficiencies, Nook said UNI also must recruit more out-of-state students.

“We will continue to admit and enroll as many of the students coming out of Iowa high schools as we always have,” he said. “But the non-resident students are a revenue stream that fully pay for their education, so they are important to us in helping balance that budget.”

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