Tuition at Iowa universities trends lower than nation

Regents considering freeze for next year

Craig Lang
Craig Lang

More than a dozen states raised university tuition and fees by double-digit increases in recent years to offset funding cuts, but Iowa’s public universities stayed well below the average increases nationally.

And with state regents next week set to consider the first tuition freeze at Iowa’s public universities in more than 30 years, the state likely will remain on the lower end of price hikes compared to peers around the nation.

“I feel good about the idea that we are holding the tuition,” state Board of Regents President Craig Lang said of the proposal. “No one in Iowa can deny that we are committed to our students.”

The average five-year increase to resident tuition and fees at public universities through 2011-12 was 42 percent nationally, compared to about 28 percent at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa, according to recent data from the College Board.

The three-year increase to tuition and fees at Iowa’s public universities through 2011-12 was about 18 percent, also below the three-year national average of 25 percent, the College Board reported.

That data from the College Board is “enrollment weighted” average prices, which means charges reported by colleges with larger full-time enrollments are weighted more heavily than those of institutions with smaller enrollments.

Tuition and fees at public universities rose 8.3 percent nationally in 2011-12 from the previous year, the College Board said, and a number of states saw increases of 15 percent to 20 percent. Tuition and fee increases for resident undergraduates that year at the UI, ISU and UNI ranged from 4.7 percent to 7 percent.

And while it’s been a decade since Iowa’s public universities have seen double-digit increases to tuition, the increase has topped inflation several times in recent years.

For 2010-11 and 2011-12, the regents approved tuition increases larger than the projected higher education inflation to help the universities cope with state budget cuts.

But in discussing tuition rates for next year, expected low inflation rates and record enrollment numbers at the UI and ISU have helped provide a cushion, Lang said.

The 2013-14 proposal will hold tuition steady for resident undergraduates — the first tuition freeze in Iowa since 1981 — if the Legislature this spring approves a 2.6 percent increase in state funding for the universities. The regents will discuss the tuition proposal at next week’s meeting in Iowa City, with final approval expected in December.

“I think now is a good time to send a message that we’d like to freeze tuition and then, hopefully next year, get back to our compromise that tuition will not be more than inflation by about one point one way or the other,” Lang, of Brooklyn, said.

The universities have worked to find budget efficiencies, and that work has paid off in the ability to support this tuition freeze, UI Student Government President Nic Pottebaum said. UI officials also have lobbied for more state funding, boosted enrollment to record levels and increased student retention, he said.

“I think that’s a positive thing, and shows that they are privy to the fact that the cost of higher education is expensive,” Pottebaum, 21, a senior from Marion studying political science and economics, said of the proposed freeze. “When it goes up 3 or 4 percent, that’s a few hundred dollars. It does add up.”

State cuts to the universities in recent years — $125 million in reductions since fiscal 009 — left behind a culture of worrying about what’s around the corner budget-wise, ISU Government of the Student Body President Jared Knight said. But ISU student leaders are happy about the proposed freeze, and they feel like officials have a plan to make sure it won’t cause higher increases down the line, said Knight, 21, a senior in political science from Mount Vernon. Record enrollment at ISU also help bring more money in, Knight said.

“I’m not concerned that the quality of programs will decrease,” he said. “This is all contingent on the state Legislature doing what we’re asking.”

The 2.6 percent increase the regents are requesting from the Legislature is the median of the expected range of the Higher Education Price Index (HEPI), a national figure used to project inflation based on factors such as salary and benefits, supplies and utilities.

It’s especially critical for UNI that a number of pieces fall into place with the tuition freeze, including the state funding request and a special $4 million state appropriation for UNI, Student Government President Jordan Bancroft-Smithe said.

“Of course for our students, the freeze is what’s best,” the 23-year-old Waverly native, a senior studying philosophy and music, said. “For this to really work for UNI, there are a lot of ifs that need to be answered.”

Lang and Regent Bob Downer said they don’t want a tuition freeze next year to mean uncertainly for the tuition picture in the years immediately after. They also don’t want mandatory fee hikes to make up the difference if tuition remains flat.

“I think we have to be very careful that there aren’t unintended consequences that play out,” Downer, an Iowa City attorney, said. “It’s something that on the surface sounds fantastic, but I think when you look at it more in depth, there are more questions.”

It’s best to reach an understanding with the Legislature that provides a state funding picture for multiple years, Downer said, to help avoid the possibility of a roller coaster effect on tuition.

The impact of a tuition freeze on UNI also is a concern, Lang and Downer said. UNI is at a financial disadvantage compared to the other two schools because it saw an enrollment decline this fall and UNI relies much more heavily on in-state students, whose tuition bills are less than half what out-of-state students pay.

But university officials and regents leaders believe a freeze is still workable, as long as UNI gets the additional $4 million in state funding that is part of the legislative request. If UNI didn’t get that money, the university would have to look at a tuition surcharge, Lang said.


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