Iowa Regent: Steep tuition increases should be 'last resort'

Support voiced for more differentiation between campuses

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IOWA CITY — Tuition increases above the cost of living increase — like those pitched by Iowa’s public university presidents if state appropriations remain flat — “should be the last resort,” according to one member of the Board of Regents.

Larry McKibben, who over the summer headed up the board’s tuition task force, made that comment Thursday in his report of the task force findings. The board office will spend the next month developing a tuition recommendation for the 2018-19 academic year. The nine-member board will consider a first reading of that proposal in October — with final approval slated for December.

Each of Iowa’s public universities in recent weeks presented five-year tuition plans to the regent task force aimed at providing more predictability for students and families, who have been slammed with last-minute rate increases for two consecutive years.

The presidents’ proposed tuition plans suggest annual increases for resident undergraduate students above the cost of living — University of Iowa and Iowa State University students would see 7-percent annualized increases and University of Northern Iowa students would see 5-percent annualized increases if lawmakers fail to come through with appropriation increases.

But McKibben, along with fellow regents, said the institutions need to find a better funding balance of state support, campus savings and tuition adjustments. And that, he said, involves stronger advocacy in the Legislature for higher education funding.

“We must be proactive and not reactive,” McKibben said, adding, “Change is necessary and must come for our three great universities in Iowa.”

Even if that means steady tuition increases — after the board achieved several years of frozen rates — McKibben said, “We must make tuition more predictable over time.”

“As a result of short funding in the past few years, we have had to make multiple tuition increases in the same budget year — even including just a few months before classes were set to start,” McKibben said. “This practice must end. We must develop a tuition level that is appropriate and sustainable over time.”

Board President Mike Richards said regents will continue approving just one year’s tuition at a time — at least initially.

“Although I think we’re going to try to put a plan forward,” he said.

In crafting that plan, Richards said, the board will consider input from the universities, their community members, lawmakers, taxpayers and others. Since releasing details of the tuition proposals, Richards said, his office has been inundated with feedback — with many commenters appealing for lower tuition increases while also voicing support for more differentiation among the campuses.

“We were a little surprised that there is a willingness of a lot of those people who were providing input to have a divergence — because of the different missions of the universities — to not have every university be lock step in their tuition rates,” Richards said. “I think that will affect our decision making.”

The university presidents themselves have urged more control over their tuition rates — particularly those for resident undergraduates, which for years have been closely aligned.

“Our institution is very different from the University of Northern Iowa or Iowa State,” UI President Bruce Harreld said Thursday. “They compete in different ways. In some cases, they don’t even compete with one another, they compete with others. We have to keep recognizing the uniqueness of these institutions and not put them all in a blender and make them all the same.”

In response to concerns that UI — with a 7 percent tuition increase for resident undergraduates — could price itself out of the market, Harreld said his institution is a long way from that, coming in as the lowest cost option of its peers.

“The other way you can price yourself out of the market is that you actually get your prices so low that you don’t have the resources to provide the support mechanisms for the people who are matriculating to your institution,” he said. “And what scares me the most is that’s where I think we are.”

The universities have said that without more revenue — whether from the Legislature or in the form of tuition increases — they will struggle to retain and recruit top faculty and injure their ability to provide an elite educational experience.

Interim ISU President Ben Allen, for example, noted his decision not to mandate salary raises this year. Regents and university administrators on Thursday acknowledged the challenges that higher tuition levels present students and their families, but they argued no one is winning right now.

“I think we’re trying to do something that’s really, really important in preparing students for their lives — not just a job, their careers — and we are trying to put the support mechanisms on a shoe string,” Harreld said. “We can do better. We owe them more.”

McKibben agreed change is coming.

“I consider, in my four years on the board, the next two years are the most important two years that I’ve seen in a long, long time,” he said. “We have to make this change and we have to make it rapidly.”

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