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IOWA CITY — Student leaders at Iowa’s public universities on Thursday said it’s important to keep higher education affordable and accessible, but they didn’t direct that message solely at the Board of Regents — which next month plans to raise tuition at all three universities.
Rather, the student government leaders called for legislative acknowledgment of the public good that public education provides by increasing state support and reversing the state’s generational disinvestment in Iowa’s public universities.
“Increasing tuition is never something students are excited to hear,” University of Iowa Undergraduate Student Government President Regan Smock said during the regents’ first of two required readings of the proposed tuition rates for the 2021-22 school year.
“Many of us are familiar with the recent trends in state funding for colleges that have caused the cost of higher education to be placed on students in a way that makes it unaffordable and inaccessible,” Smock said.
Lawmakers last year — in the throes of COVID-19 — took back $8 million in general education appropriations already allocated to the universities, which ended up freezing tuition rates for the full academic year to ease pandemic-related financial challenges.
The loss of state funding and tuition revenue — further diminished by students dropping out or opting not to enroll until after the pandemic — prompted the universities to cut jobs, salaries, and programs and to ask lawmakers this year to restore the $8 million cut while also upping appropriations another $18 million.
The Legislature denied those regent requests — keeping appropriations at the status quo $569 million in the budget year that starts July 1.
Given that, regents returned to their five-year tuition model that promised annual hikes at the UI and ISU if state support is below the amount requested.
The board is pitching a 3.5 percent increase in undergraduate tuition at the UI and ISU for the upcoming academic year, which starts Aug. 23. The proposed increases are expected to generate a combined $24 million at the UI and ISU in the next budget year.
The proposal, which the board is scheduled to vote on July 28, also includes a 1.5 percent increase for all students at UNI, which froze rates for the last two academic years.
Students lost out
Although student leaders speaking to the board Thursday weren’t happy about paying more in tuition, they also weren’t happy with their campuses’ shrinking resources.
“I do not believe that the tuition freeze that existed for the last year was a win for students in Iowa,” Smock said. “A freeze in tuition does not help students in the long run without a corresponding increase in state funding to make up for the funds lost through the global pandemic.”
Students over the last year continued paying thousands of dollars — which many funded through loans, leaving them “crushed by debt.”
“These same students inevitably received a lower quality of education after funding cuts from our state Legislature left the universities with no choice but to lay off faculty and decrease resources for students,” Smock said.
“We need systemic changes in our funding model to make the cost of attendance affordable and possible for each and every young person in our state who chooses to pursue higher education.”
Flip-flop in funding
In the early 1980s, Iowa legislative appropriations accounted for 77 percent of public university general education funding, and tuition accounted for 21 percent — with other sources providing the remaining 2 percent.
Those percentages have flip-flopped, with state appropriations in the 2019 budget year accounting for 30 percent and tuition making up 65 percent of the universities’ general education funds.
Regents over the years have highlighted their campuses’ contributions to the state’s economy and workforce, reporting an $11.8 billion economic impact in 2017-18, or 149,980 jobs supported.
“When we choose to underfund higher education, we are sending our doctors, lawyers, and engineers to a different state where they can afford their education and know that the work they do is valued in the community,” Smock said. “When we invest in higher education, we invest in young people who will be the next generation of leaders in our state.”
Dems blame Republicans
Some Republican lawmakers during the last Legislative session criticized the public universities for incidents involving the suppression of conservative voices and ideology. And they proposed bills threatening to eliminate faculty tenure, among other things.
But Democratic lawmakers representing the communities in which Iowa’s public universities sit this week issued a collective statement that — like comments out of the student leaders Thursday — tied the proposed tuition hike to legislative priorities.
“The proposed tuition increase for students at the three state universities will make it harder for students and their families to afford the education they need to get ahead,” according to a statement from state Sens. Joe Bolkcom of Iowa City, Eric Giddens of Cedar Falls and Herman Quirmbach of Ames.
“The Republican-controlled Legislature and Gov. Reynolds have forced this ‘tuition tax increase’ by failing to fund our universities adequately,” the statement said. “The result will be more student debt and more young people leaving Iowa.”
In addition to the proposed 3.5 percent rate hikes for resident undergraduate at UI and ISU — bringing base tuition to $8,356 and $8,324, respectively — Iowa State is proposing a 4 percent rate increase for undergraduate nonresidents and for all graduate students.
The UI is keeping its non-resident increases to 1 percent — although both campuses impose higher rates on students in costlier programs like engineering.
UNI Student Body Vice President Alisanne Struck on Thursday supported her campus’ proposed 1.5 percent across-the-board tuition bump — while also pushing for improved legislative backing.
“While we understand that tuition must go up to ensure quality, we are concerned about the long-term costs for students.”
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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