Iowa university presidents ask for $20 million more from state

ISU president: 'We've reached a tipping point' on student numbers, faculty retention

People walk along the sidewalk by Madison Street on the campus of the University of Iowa in Iowa City on Wednesday, April 30, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
People walk along the sidewalk by Madison Street on the campus of the University of Iowa in Iowa City on Wednesday, April 30, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

DES MOINES — The residents of Iowa’s three regents’ universities asked a legislative budget panel for an additional $20 million next year to help meet the needs of growing student numbers as well as to recruit and retain faculty.

“We’re reaching a tipping point,” Iowa State University President Steven Leath told the Education Appropriations Subcommittee in the presidents’ annual presentation.

His message that enrollment is growing, but state appropriations have declined in recent years at the same time the Board of Regents froze tuition for five straight semesters was repeated by University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld and University of Northern Iowa President William Ruud.

“If you look at state funding per student … it’s been going down,” Harreld said after the meeting. “That’s created a pressure on major public research institutions to get more efficient or find alternative sources. That explains a large portion of why tuitions have been going up. There’s a trade-off there.”

If the current trend continues, “in the next decade a number of major public research institutions had better find new economic models or they are going to be a lot smaller and a lot more focused,” Harreld said. “Some of them may go out of business.”

It’s unclear how much support the universities will get. Gov. Terry Branstad’s budget called for an $8 million increase, from $595 million to $603 million for the regents.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said the $20 million request will have to be worked out by the budget subcommittee “weighing those priorities with other priorities.” House Republicans have proposed a $146 million increase in the current $7.2 billion general fund budget.

“At this point in time, I don’t think that that entirely would fit inside the increase,” he said.

However, Sen. Herman Quirmbach, D-Ames, told the Education Appropriations Subcommittee the presidents’ request is “a drop in the bucket compared to what we need to do to get back to where we were 20 years ago.” During that time, the ISU faculty member said, state funding for the regents — adjusted for inflation — has decreased $309 million.

He called that a “massive disinvestment in higher education.”

University funding is “very complicated,” Harreld said, but wasn’t ready to call it a disinvestment.

“I don’t think we’re at that stage yet, but it is a trend we should be talking about,” he said.

Harreld also pointed out that lower state funding is contributing to higher student debt.

“As you increase the tuition to deal with declining state funding, that obviously does increase the demand for parents and students to pick up the tab,” he said.

Ruud, Leath and Harreld all reported their universities are making progress in lowering student debt. At UNI, it’s down about $5,000 since the 20109-10 school year. At ISU, there has been an 11 percent decrease in the past three years. AT UI, the number of students taking out federal loans and the amount they are borrowing has decreased, Harreld said.

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