Iowa Board of Regents seek new approach to higher ed funding

Community, private colleges have a stake, too, their leaders say

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IOWA CITY — With state support for higher education floundering, and more tuition increases looming, several lawmakers say they support and would be involved in a Board of Regents-led task force focused on future tuition-setting practices and rates.

During its April meeting last week in Council Bluffs, board members pitched the idea of forming a task force with “a wide representation of regent constituencies” that could meet this summer to have a discussion about tuition at the public universities.

Outgoing board President Bruce Rastetter said the collaboration could address state priorities and help students and families plan.

“The board has tried very hard in the last five years to get out in front to let legislators and parents know what our tuition increase would be if we get a certain amount of state support,” Rastetter said. “Clearly that went off the rails this year because of the Iowa economy. But there was also a difference in how Iowa funds education and how the regents system has been funded.”

Board spokesman Josh Lehman said this week his office is developing a framework for such a group.

At the meeting, Rastetter said that Iowa “really needs a holistic approach to whether it can afford all the education that it has — the pre-K-12, the community college system, the Iowa Tuition Grant program, and properly funding the regents.”

Propelling the idea was a rough legislative session brought on by lower-than-expected state revenue growth. Lawmakers delivered body blows to the public universities — cutting $20.8 million from their base general education funding for the current year and further reducing base state appropriations in 2018.

The cuts prompted regents last week to signal another tuition increase for fall — on top of the already approved 2 percent rise for resident undergraduates. Later this summer, the board could up the increase to 5 percent, Rastetter said.

Similarly, Iowa’s private institutions and public community colleges are increasing rates.

Next month, Kirkwood Community College’s board will consider approving an $8 per credit hour hike, bumping the price from $154 to $162.

The institution tries to keep the increase to between 3 and 4 percent, Kirkwood President Mick Starcevich said.

“Can’t make that happen this year,” he said, “which is sad.”

Des Moines Area Community College also is planning a tuition increase, of about $4 per credit hour. Coe College is instituting a 3.5 percent increase in the fall.

Although the committee Rastetter proposed would focus only on regent school tuition, private and community college presidents this week told The Gazette they’d like a role in a larger discussion of the future of Iowa’s higher education.

“It would be helpful to have all sectors included, including private higher education,” Coe President David McInally said. “In any conversation about funding public higher education, the Iowa Tuition Grant would be part of the discussion, in which case I think it’s essential to have representation from private colleges and universities.”

‘Start talking’’

Rastetter, whose term as a regent officially ends Sunday, said the board still needs to invite lawmakers and relevant parties to the task force, but he expects it to do so shortly and release a meeting schedule.

Regent Larry McKibben, who last week announced his candidacy to replace Rastetter as board president, said he hasn’t spent time considering the potential structure of the task force but expects the new board will “do a deeper dive” into the possibilities.

Legislative leaders this week said they like the idea and would possibly participate if invited.

Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Waterloo, urged a “back to the basics” funding approach for K-12, community colleges, regents, and private institutions.

Representing a district that includes the University of Northern Iowa, Danielson stressed the board “needs to clean up its own house, too.”

“It needs to review and reduce all redundant academic programs,” he said. “There is no reason for expanding teacher education programs at Iowa and Iowa State when we can’t pay the bills at UNI.”

Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, agreed that “it’s time for a new approach to building better relationships with policy makers,” adding that “we need legislators from outside regent communities to be on the task force.”

House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, after noting that economic conditions made this budget year particularly challenging, said information early on could impact decisions.

She pointed, for example, to a recent regents efficiency review that cost the board millions.

“It would be, I think, useful and certainly interesting to know what that yielded,” she said.

Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, acknowledged potential political pitfalls of such a task force.

“The political problem is lawmakers wouldn’t want to serve on something that would imply they were raising tuition,” he said. “So it’s a juggling act.”

A broader discussion about funding higher education is overdue, according to Dvorksy.

“If we need more support from the Legislature, that would be one way to do it — to get everyone together and start talking about it,” he said. “And it’s really important to have more than the regents, but also privates and community colleges.”

‘Long-standing reality’

Kirkwood’s Starcevich suggested the Legislature — not the regents — would be the best driver of a “broad discussion about the entirety of educational funding.”

Cornell College President Jonathan Brand said he’d welcome a role in such a discussion, saying involving all higher education interests “reinforces a long-standing reality” in Iowa:

“That all of our institutions have collectively worked well together in the past to ensure that Iowa maintains an impressive array of strong schools for our students,” Brand said.

At Des Moines Area Community College, President Rob Denson stressed the role community colleges play in the broader system in Iowa.

“There are more students going to community colleges in Iowa than all the regents and all the privates put together, and then some,” he said.

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

“It’s time for a new approach to building better relationships with policymakers. We need legislators from outside regent communities to be on the task force.”

- Joe Bolkcom

Sen. D-Iowa City

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