Tuition task force to summarize Iowa university needs, public pushback

'I am horrified at the tuition increase'

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Still in high school in rural western Iowa, an aspiring Hawkeye emailed the Board of Regents last month dismayed by a proposed 7 percent annual hike in residential undergraduate tuition through 2022.

Sara Denning shared with regents her dream to become a pediatric dentist and hope to achieve that via the University of Iowa.

“However, a tuition increase puts me in a bad position, as I can barely afford college as it is,” Denning wrote, according to emails the board provided to The Gazette. “I love the Hawkeyes, but I am not sure I will be able to say I am one if the tuition gets increased year by year. Less people with a solid education makes for a more chaotic and less open-minded world, which we all live in.”

Many students already attending one of Iowa’s three public universities shared similar sentiments in response to 5-year tuition proposals that UI, Iowa State University, and University of Northern Iowa issued over the summer. The plans included 7-percent annual increases for resident undergraduates at UI and ISU and an annualized 5-percent increase for UNI students — if the Legislature fails to provide any increase in appropriations.

The Board of Regents requested the proposals come before a new tuition task force charged with developing a tuition strategy ensuring sufficient resources for the campuses while also giving students and families more predictability.

The board created the task force after deep cuts in state funding in the last legislative session prompted a second year of last-minute tuition increases and drove home the reality that state support might never recover.

The task force, chaired by Regent Larry McKibben, will provide the full board a summary of its summer discussions during the regents’ Thursday meeting on the UI campus. The summary, which was made public Friday, includes both the tuition proposals and also the feedback, which it received in person and by email from students, lawmakers, faculty, staff, and community members.

“As a father with two children at two Iowa public universities, this is a huge impact,” David Suntken wrote, suggesting the board cut administrative salaries or positions.

A current UI student wrote to the board about her experience growing up with a single mother of three — meeting eligibility guidelines for free and reduce lunch.

“I currently attend the University of Iowa, where that financial hardship has only grown,” she wrote. “With the increase of tuition at the university, it is likely I will no longer be able to attend due to being unable to financially support myself and my education.”

Another UI student in an email reported friends in similar situations.

“They are forced to leave the university because they can’t find that dollar amount,” Lindsey Rayner, senior staff adviser with UI Student Government, wrote. “It is something very heartbreaking to me, and I have continued to see some of the most talented and students who inspire me to be better forced to leave to go to another institution.”

“I am horrified at the tuition increase,” one student wrote simply. “Tuition is barely affordable as is.”

Although concerns dominated the emails to the board, Grant Jerkovich — vice president of the UI Graduate and Professional Student Government — conceded support for the rate hike, which he said will “set UI at an average in-state cost relative to our peer group.”

“Tuition freezes lead to a degradation of the quality of our degrees, programs, and the university’s reputation,” Jerkovich wrote.

Still he, like many others, urged the board to continue pleading with lawmakers to do their part to support public higher education. Lawmakers themselves — mostly on the Democratic side of the aisle — spokes during tuition task force meetings about the imperative to better fund the universities.

“This proposal throws in the towel on the people of Iowa who have helped build these institutions, and I think it throws in the towel on the governor and Legislature’s responsibility to support our public universities,” Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, said during the UI task force discussion.

UI President Bruce Harreld and Interim ISU President Ben Allen have said their schools are at the bottom of their peer groups in resident undergraduate tuition, and they are desperate for more revenue — as they struggle to provide competitive faculty salaries, hurting their ability to attract and retain talent and maintain an excellent academic experience.

UNI President Mark Nook has said his institution is different in mission and scope from UI and ISU, and he’s OK with their tuition rates rising above UNI. But, he argued, UNI’s high percent of resident undergraduates should mean more money from the Legislatures — perhaps more than provided to ISU and UI.

The Board of Regents is not planning to set tuition rates at its meeting next week, but it will do so in December — following a first reading in October. And the board plans to continue the discussion in the interim, with the task force presentation on Thursday and at least two members of the public planning to speak on the issue during a new public comment period at the same meeting.

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

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