Spring tuition differential largest in regent history

'We were surprised'

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IOWA CITY — This spring, for the first time since the 1960s, the University of Iowa will be the cheapest public university in the state — with a tuition differential from its regent institution peers that is the largest in history.

The state Board of Regents in July announced plans to consider an unprecedented midyear bump in resident undergraduate tuition at UI, Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa — despite original plans to keep rates frozen for the full 2015-16 school year.

The board’s proposed 3 percent increase for the spring 2016 semester would have added $100 to a full-time undergraduate resident’s tuition bill — increasing UI rates from $3,339 to $3,439 and ISU and UNI rates from $3,324 to $3,424.

But those plans took a surprising turn last week after the student body presidents from each campus spoke on behalf of their constituents during the regents’ monthly meeting. ISU and UNI student leaders advocated for the increase — saying enrollment growth and a heavy load of resident students had them desperate for more revenue.

But UI Student Body President Liz Mills did not.

“It makes sense that Iowa State and UNI would advocate for an increase, as their populations are growing and their universities have specific strategies in which to invest the additional tuition,” Mills told the board. “The University of Iowa, however, does not have the same needs. And I ask that you do not increase tuition at the University of Iowa.”

The board heard those appeals, amended its proposal and agreed to keep UI tuition frozen for the entire academic year. That means, come July, UI students will be paying $85 less than their Iowa State and UNI counterparts — a gap that is unprecedented.

Sustaining the freeze for the spring erases an anticipated $1.2 to $1.4 million in new revenue. And UI administrators said they were not expecting the board to except one institution from the proposed increase. UI spokeswoman Jeneane Beck said university administrators did not communicate with Mills before her presentation to the board.

“We were surprised, but we respect our students speaking out on an issue,” Beck said. “That’s their role.”

And, Beck said, the UI’s original budget did accommodate for a full year’s freeze.

“So we can live within our means,” she said.

UI Interim President Jean Robillard said the sustained freeze is good for student pocketbooks and now firmly establishes the institution as a best buy in the state.

“By not increasing the cost, they increased the value,” he said.

But immediately after approving the student request for a sustained tuition freeze, the Board of Regents agreed to ask the state for another $4.5 million for UI in the next budget year. And some regents expressed concern about the apparent conflicting information.

“I am troubled by the disconnect between what the students perceive and what the university administration, faculty and staff are telling us,” Regents President Pro Tem Katie Mulholland said. “I feel very strongly that the core program of teaching and research needs to be supported, ... but I do think that we as a board have to figure out where the disconnect is when a student representative comes and says that it’s not needed, and we hear yet from the institution that it is.”

Regents Patricia Cownie and Sherry Bates said they share those concerns and agreed with Mulholland that the board needs to take a hard look at tuition rates for the 2016-17 academic year.

Mills said UI students know tuition increases will be back on the table next fall.

“I, as well as my fellow University of Iowa students, recognize that going forward with planning for the 2016-2017 school year that a tuition freeze is not feasible,” she said.

‘That’s not the message’

Tuition rates have skyrocketed in recent years, shifting the burden of the cost of providing an education at the three institutions from the state to the students. In 1981, when resident undergraduate tuition at UI was $830, state appropriations covered more than 77 percent of the institution’s general education funding.

Today, that percentage is down around 35 percent, while tuition now provides for around 60 percent of the general education budget.

Despite the steep climb in resident undergraduate tuition at UI, ISU and UNI from the 1990s to date, the Board of Regents has managed to keep those rates frozen since 2012 — until this last Legislative session came up short for the board’s appropriation request.

Instead of a 4.3 percent increase in state appropriations — equal to $21.7 million — the 2015 General Assembly passed only a 1.26 percent bump of just $6.5 million.

And that news came late, in June, which is why Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter said he and his colleagues felt compelled to consider the unique midyear increase. It’s also why Rastetter said he was open to exempting UI.

But from 1991 to 2007, there was no variation, according to Board of Regents Chief Business Officer Patrice Sayre. There had been modest variation before 1991, with UI and ISU often in unison and UNI slightly lower.

But former Regent Bob Downer, who served from 2003 to 2015, said resident undergraduate tuition at the three universities aligned in 1991 due in large part to UNI leadership.

“Former president (Robert) Koob at UNI resisted any differential of the tuitions at the institutions because he thought that was sending a signal that UNI was inferior and that’s why it cost less,” Downer said. “My personal view is that’s not the message at all. The message is that UNI is different.”

But tuition rates remained in sync until the board adopted a new policy for the 2007 budget year providing universities the flexibility to recommend different rates. That was the year UI saw its base increase above ISU and UNI.

‘That was incredible’

Mills told The Gazette that when she went to the board last week with her appeal for a spring freeze, she wasn’t expecting to get what she wanted.

“I thought I was going to ask for it and for it to be considered, but it probably wouldn’t happen,” she said. “I was surprised when it did. That was incredible.”

In taking the message back to her constituents, some were a little confused, Mills said. But, she said, when they grasped the notion that UI’s resident undergraduate tuition is staying put for the spring, while the other two are going up, “They were very excited.”

“The students are in a really good spot,” Mills said.

UI Student Government is in the middle of discussions about what it might push for related to fall 2016 tuition, Mills said. But, she noted, that UI’s base tuition now is lower than the other two is a plus.

“We are really excited about getting the freeze this year, and we want to work with the regents about what’s best for the students overall going forward,” she said.

ISU and UNI student leaders expressed support for the UI request to maintain a spring freeze apart from their institutions, as they both painted an almost dire picture of mounting budgetary concerns.

“When I first got word that the regents were going to propose a tuition increase for resident students, my initial thought was that it could not have come at a more opportune time,” ISU Student Body President Dan Breitbarth told the regents last week. “Iowa State could definitely benefit from some increased income.”

Students have been “patient” with the changes on campus to accommodate soaring enrollment, according to Breitbarth. ISU surpassed UI in 2013 to become the biggest public university in the state and this fall reported another record-breaking total enrollment of 36,001, compared to UI’s 32,150 enrollment and UNI’s 11,981 enrollment.

“But we are all aware of the need for additional support,” he said. “We have so many wonderful services at Iowa State, but more importantly so many wonderful people that help foster success and these students want to see the continuation of these opportunities.”

UNI Student Body President Katie Evans likewise expressed her school’s strong support for a modest tuition increase, reminding the regents that freezes “disproportionally affect UNI, as the university with the highest percentage of in-state students.”

Ups and Downs of Tuition

Tuition for 2011-12, just before the most recent freeze

UI — $6,436
ISU — $6,408
UNI — $6,408

Tuition for 2014-15

UI —$6,678
ISU — $6,648
UNI — $6,648

Fall 2015

UI — $3,339
ISU — $3,324
UNI — $3,324 

Spring 2016

UI — $3,339
ISU — $3,424
UNI — $3,424

Source: Board of Regents and regents Chief Business Officer Patrice Sayre

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