116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Home / News / Education / Higher Ed
Republicans eye different take on regent university funding
Lawmakers will focus on workforce and retaining graduates in Iowa
IOWA CITY — Although a Republican-led effort last year to change the way Iowa funds its public universities didn’t materialize, the concept isn’t dead — as lawmakers are airing plans to revisit the idea in the upcoming session in their debate over how much to give the state institutions.
“When it comes to education funding, quite frankly, I think it's time for us to take a look at how we fund the regent institutions,” said House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford. “We're not opposed to providing more funding into that area of the budget. But we feel we have to get a return from the standpoint of helping fill these high-demand fields in which there’s needs all across the state.”
Included in last year’s Republican-backed higher education funding proposal — which Grassley said is “similar to what we will look at this year” — was a mechanism to provide scholarships and incentives for students to stay and work in high-demand fields in Iowa after graduation.
“I think that's a perfect example of something that we can do that will do two things: No. 1, drive more people into these degrees, but also keep them here to help fill these high-demand jobs,” Grassley said. “We want to try some new things, and this would be a new idea that we really haven't done a lot of investment in in the past — something that we could try to make sure that we're not just doing things the way we've always done.”
How it’s usually done
Iowa’s Board of Regents every fall sends appropriations requests to the Legislature, broken down by general higher education funds — to be distributed among the three public universities at the regents’ discretion — and by special schools and special purpose units, like the University of Iowa-based State Hygienic Lab and Iowa State University-based Agriculture Experiment Station.
Lawmakers in the House and Senate then propose funding amounts and come together for a compromised appropriations package they send to the governor for approval.
Lately, the Legislature has denied the regents’ full appropriations ask, even cutting support for amounts it had already approved on occasion — like in summer 2020, when lawmakers took back $8 million and brought the total higher education appropriation to $63 million less than it was two decades earlier in fiscal 2001.
When regents last year asked for a $22.1 million increase — including $15 million in general higher education funding the three universities vowed to spend on things like mental health resources, graduation and retention rates and filling high-demand jobs in Iowa — lawmakers instead OK’d a $5.5 million general education funding bump, amounting to a 1.1 percent increase for each campus.
Republican lawmakers had proposed a bigger bump of $12 million, but wanted to tie it to a new “Iowa Workforce Grant and Incentive Program” administered by the state’s College Student Aid Commission. The program would have supported students directly through grants and scholarships and compelled the universities to compete among themselves for state dollars by enrolling more high-demand majors.
“And they need students because the enrollments are decreasing,” former Rep. David Kerr, R-Morning Sun, said last year while debating the proposal as chair of the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee. “I think this is a great plan that they'll jump on board with.”
Grassley recently said he still likes the idea.
“I think we want to change the conversation from just funding the regents institutions to turn out more degrees, whatever those degrees may be,” he said, citing workforce demands in specific areas like engineering, computer sciences, and teaching, for example.
“So what our approach is going to be is we're willing to offer some ways to make you more competitive, to attract people into these fields,” he said. “And part of what our proposal did last year, that we're looking at for this following year, is not only getting people in these high-demand fields, but also additional resources to keep them in Iowa after that as well.”
New regent request
The Board of Regents for the upcoming budget year requested $34.7 million more in education appropriations — an ask driven by accelerating inflation that, if granted, would bring the state’s total regent education appropriations to $610.5 million.
The UI has committed to use its share to address Iowa’s nursing shortage and improve outcomes for students who are the first in their family to attend college. ISU, too, has vowed to use additional state dollars to help first-generation students, address state workforce needs and foster agriculture innovation, among other things.
The University of Northern Iowa has said its increase would go toward keeping tuition competitive with regional peers and churning out more teachers.
“We want to make sure that any money we’re spending — and this isn't exclusive to the regents, it’s everywhere we spend money — that money is being spent in the best way possible,” said Sen. Jack Whitver, the Senate majority leader from Grimes, stressing the importance of keeping tuition affordable and ensuring students reap the reward of state appropriations. “All those conversations are things that we'll have throughout the appropriations process.”
‘Not trade school’
Whitver said tying funding to students pursuing high-demand majors is “an interesting concept.”
“I think taxpayer dollars should be used to invest in areas where we have jobs that need workers, and there's a lot of great fields in the state of Iowa where we need upward of 100,000 employees,” he said. “In investing taxpayer dollars from the state to our regents, I don't think it's a bad idea to focus that on high-demand jobs.”
But Rep. Jennifer Konfrst, D-Windsor Heights, who leads Democrats in the Iowa House, said that type of thinking is too narrow for public universities that offer hundreds of different majors, minors and certificates at the undergraduate, graduate, doctoral, and postdoctoral level.
“It's not trade school,” Konfrst said. “The regent institutions are there to truly teach and educate future leaders in our state. And I think that what you'll find is the jobs that are in demand now might not be in demand in five years, or vice versa. So let's not cut the regents off at the knees and say you can only get your funding if you're teaching people how to do this job.”
Iowa’s public universities are creating well-rounded “critical thinkers” who enrich the quality of life in this state and do more than generate revenue, according to Konfrst.
“They're able to understand that a lot of fields have true value in our community that don't just translate into paychecks,” she said.
Although Konfrst didn’t say how much exactly she’s willing to appropriate the regents, she pointed to a widely-circulated graphic showing what has happened as legislative appropriations have decreased over the years.
Where state support accounted for 77 percent of the regents’ general education funding in 1981, today that’s down to 31 percent. Meanwhile, tuition revenue has soared from being 21 percent of regent education funding to 64 percent today.
“At the end of the day, if the state is giving the regent institutions less, families are paying more,” she said. “And so if we want to make higher education affordable, if we want to keep people staying in Iowa, we need to make sure that we're doing what we need to support our regent institutions.”
Senate Minority Leader Sen. Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, pointed directly at Republicans to blame for increases in tuition — which is up 4.25 percent for all resident undergraduates across the regent system this year.
“Let’s be 100 percent clear,” he said. “Iowa Republicans are defunding our higher education system. That is a huge driver of why student debt is getting bigger.”
He accused Republicans have enacting tax cuts instead of investing in “young workers who are in college and trying to get their careers off to the right start. That's a policy choice that Republicans are making, and it's having huge impacts on the ability of young people to start their careers.”
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
Caleb McCullough of The Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau contributed to this report.
Comments: (319) 339-3158; email@example.com