Education

Iowa Board of Regents members vow heads-up on future tuition hikes

But board faces uncertainty as lawmakers consider budget cuts

(FILE PHOTO) A Board of Regents meeting at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City on Wednesday, Sep. 6, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
(FILE PHOTO) A Board of Regents meeting at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City on Wednesday, Sep. 6, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

AMES — In addition to committing to tuition increases for resident undergraduates under 4 percent for this fall — scaling back proposals made over the summer as high as 7 percent — the president of Iowa’s Board of Regents promised Thursday to announce in the coming months a multiyear tuition model.

That model would lay out baseline increases — or a potential range — for four or five years in hopes of providing students and families with more predictability about the cost of higher education at Iowa’s public universities.

The ability to plan and budget has become a major concern for students, even as they laud the board for not increasing rates multiple times for the upcoming fall — as the board has done before.

The board, which typically approves tuition rates for upcoming terms nearly one year in advance, has been waiting on funding information from the state and so has delayed its tuition decision until later this summer — just months before students will be responsible for paying those bills.

That has brought criticism, including at the board meeting Thursday at Iowa State University where ISU Student Government President Cody West said tuition and fees would be proposed “much later than expected.” Delays, West said, matter because student leaders need time to educate peers about what the rates mean — not only for resident undergrads, but for students in costlier programs, from other states or from outside the country.

“In the past, we have struggled to help them understand the magnitude of a particular increase due to the very ranges of complexity and the sheer number of proposals,” he said.

Board President Mike Richards aimed to address those concerns with his announcement of a coming tuition model, saying that the board might not commit to specific increases for each of the coming years but rather give a range.

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“Having predictability of future tuition increases was one concern that we heard from so many different groups,” he said.

Tuition increases and the scramble to set appropriate rates is fallout from state funding woes that have frustrated the campuses in recent years as lawmakers take back appropriations midyear to account for state budget shortfalls.

University presidents boast of efficiencies that have slashed their budgets by millions to show they are responsible spenders of public money. At the same time, higher ed’s criticism of state funding cuts to the universities has grown increasingly louder.

During Thursday’s meeting, Regent Larry McKibben hammered lawmakers, who have proposed taking back between $5.1 million to as much of $14.6 million from the regents in the current budget year.

That is in addition to the more than $20 million they took back last year, and the nearly $10 million reduction they already made to the current budget.

For the upcoming budget year, which starts July 1, the Board of Regents has asked for a $12 million appropriations increase, all of which would go toward student financial aid.

Gov. Kim Reynolds has suggested a lower increase of $7.25 million.

But McKibben, focusing on the proposed current year cuts, cried foul.

In 1981, the state provided more than 77 percent of the universities’ general education funding, while tuition provided 21 percent.

Today, state support accounts for about 33 percent of the funding and tuition covers more than 62 percent of it.

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“The regents total general fund appropriation in fiscal year 2018 will be less than it received in 1998, when I joined the Senate,” he said. “I couldn’t believe that, when I got that piece of data. This makes absolutely no sense as there has been no new support for an entire generation.”

McKibben served in the Iowa Legislature from 1997 to 2008 but said he wasn’t on education committees. Still, he reported his generation had failed today’s students and demanded lawmakers reverse course.

“We have tens of millions of dollars in our rainy day fund in Des Moines — we built and grew the rainy day fund in order that we had money to make sure that if something happened in the middle of the year or there was a difficult time, we could keep that from being any worse than it was,” he said. “Now we’re talking about a $35 million cut in budget in midyear, and they have tens of millions of dollars in a rainy-day fund … That is not acceptable as far as I’m concerned.”

Over the summer, the board created a tuition task force and asked its university presidents to propose tuition increases they believe necessary to support their strategic plans. The University of Iowa and ISU suggested 7 percent increases annually for five years for resident undergraduates — if lawmakers don’t increase state appropriations over that time. The University of Northern Iowa proposed an annualized increase of 5 percent with that caveat.

Richards on Thursday said the board continues to study appropriate tuition rates, but he promised resident undergraduate increases will be under 4 percent.

Resident undergraduate tuition currently sits at $7,486 at UI and $7,456 at UNI and ISU.

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