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IOWA CITY — With Iowa’s public universities scrambling to cut millions from their budgets after massive pullbacks in state support, one University of Iowa professor is pitching a new funding and governance model for the Board of Regents institutions that would give them more autonomy.
The model flips on its head the low-tuition, low-aid strategy Iowa has embraced for its public universities and also pushes improved access to low-income students — which analysts say must happen to meet the state’s goal of getting 70 percent of Iowans some form of postsecondary education by 2025.
UI College of Education Professor Christopher Morphew’s proposal is a high-tuition, high-aid idea that would bring in more than $90 million in revenue from students who can afford it but offer significant assistance to those who can’t.
About half of that $90 million-plus — in the University of Iowa’s case, for example — would go toward fully funding its 4,700-some Pell Grant recipients by giving them each $11,506, which is the average unmet need for a resident Pell grantee after scholarships and grants, according to Morphew.
His proposed model also would decrease reliance on state funding — going so far as to commit the regents not to ask the state for more than an agreed-upon funding bump tied to the inflation index in exchange for more autonomy and control over things like procurement, personnel and capital outlay.
“The savings they’re going to generate from being released from some of the state procurement realities, capital outlay procedures, all those things, that’s going to save them millions of dollars — potentially more than $10 million,” Morphew said Tuesday while pitching his model during an Iowa Ideas symposium sponsored by The Gazette.
Morphew’s model also involves a commitment from the Board of Regents to achieve and retain the highest-possible bond rating from an independent agency — as part of its autonomy from state control and mandates.
The increased autonomy would be nice, he said, at a time when lawmakers are making big cuts to Iowa’s public universities and signaling wariness about future funding. Lawmakers in December approved taking back from the Board of Regents $18 million in state funds already appropriated for the current budget year as part of a $117.8 million de-appropriation following a budget shortfall.
Then in February, the Iowa Department of Management announced another round of cuts that pulled $11.5 million from the Board of Regents. In all, UI has lost $9.2 million from its state funding base; Iowa State University has lost nearly $9 million; and University of Northern Iowa has lost $2.5 million.
And the bleeding could continue. The state Revenue Estimating Conference is slated to meet next week to revisit its revenue growth projection for the current fiscal year. State tax collections through February are running 1.9 percent ahead of last year, but the Legislative Services Agency tax analyst says factors might have inflated that growth rate. If the panel further downgrades its revenue estimate on March 14, lawmakers would have to make additional cuts.
Morphew’s proposal seems to align with recent statements from UI President Bruce Harreld advocating for higher tuition rates and more control. Like Harreld, Morphew is proposing raising resident tuition levels in line with peer institutions to around $12,500 from the current $7,128.
Under Morphew’s pitch, the three public universities could set their own tuition levels. UNI, for example, could keep its rate low or target it toward prospective students in neighboring states.
Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter recently signaled support for Harreld’s push to up tuition — should state support continue to falter.
“If the state chooses not to adequately fund the UI’s five-year strategic plan, the board is committed to work with the UI to bring its tuition in line with its national peer group,” Rastetter said in a statement.
Morphew highlighted the need for change by pointing out that low-tuition, low-aid works when a state can keep rates low. And, he said, the UI’s about $9,000 in undergraduate resident tuition and fees — not including another nearly $13,000 for room, board, and auxiliary costs — “is not low.”
That is exemplified by statistics showing the median family income of UI’s student population is $128,000 — with about 60 percent coming from the state’s top 20 percent. UI ranks eighth among 377 selective public universities when it comes to percent of students with family income of more than $110,000.
“We’re No. 8 where one is not a good thing,” Morphew said.
UI ranks 374 out of 377 in percent of students with family income below $20,000.
“We look terrible on these data,” he said. “I think it’s a perfectly accurate thing to describe the regent universities as gated communities. There is not equal access to these communities for all Iowans. In particular, low-income Iowans are being squeezed out.”
That is bad news when looking at Iowa’s demographics and its goals, Morphew said. In 2014, 60 percent of Iowans over age 25 had completed some form of education or training beyond high school. Looking at job projections in the coming years, Gov. Terry Branstad has set a goal of getting to 70 percent.
In response to Morphew’s proposal, Karen Misjak, executive director of Iowa College Aid, said her organization supports the goal of connecting more low-income Iowans to financial resources.
“These students, who currently are among the least likely to go to college, will be crucial to reaching Iowa’s education goals,” she said.
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