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IOWA CITY - The Board of Regents on Wednesday approved an unprecedented third straight tuition freeze for resident undergraduate students, conditional on funding from the state Legislature.
The board office originally proposed increasing tuition for that group of students by 1.75 percent in the next academic year. That means the freeze approved Wednesday would reduce projected tuition revenue by $4.5 million.
The board did vote Wednesday to increase tuition in the next year for non-resident and graduate and professional students, generating an expected $10 million. And several regents have cited anticipated savings from a multimillion dollar efficiency review as another source of funds capable of supporting the historic freeze.
The board voted unanimously to approve the freeze Wednesday, but regent Bob Downer said he did so with hesitation, voicing concern about how it could impact the University of Northern Iowa if lawmakers don't boost higher education appropriations next year.
'This freeze will not fall equally on all three institutions,” Downer said, referring to UNI, which relies more heavily resident undergraduate tuition then University of Iowa and Iowa State University.
In September, the Board of Regents asked the state Legislature for a 1.75 percent inflationary increase in general university operating support, along with $12.9 million to shield UI from being harmed by new enrollment- and performance-based funding metrics the board wants to use to distribute state dollars.
Downer said the board needs to develop a backup plan in case lawmakers don't support the new funding metrics and don't fulfill the board's request for support.
'It appears to me an alternative to the performance-based funding model needs to be developed in the event it is not adopted so UNI funds don't decline to a dangerous level,” Downer said.
Downer on Wednesday also said he's concerned about relying on savings from the board's systemwide efficiency review to backfill losses in potential tuition revenue, recalling its original commitment to the universities that all efficiency savings would be reinvested into the campuses.
'We said these savings would be redeployed into the institutions from which they were derived, and I don't think the freeze has been the choice of the universities,” Downer said. 'If all or a portion are going to be redirected outside the control of the universities, we are not being consistent.”
Board President Bruce Rastetter said he has spoken with the university presidents about the opportunity to use a 'small part” of what is expected to be tens of millions of dollars in efficiency savings to hold down tuition.
Responding to concerns about UNI's budget, should lawmakers reject the board's new funding model, Rastetter said he's not worried.
'I don't know that we need to think about backup plans if the Legislature won't accept it - I believe they will,” Rastetter said. 'If they don't, this board has recognized that we will need to do something else.”
But, he said, the new funding metrics address some of UNI's budgetary challenges, and the board's tuition freeze sends an important message to parents and students.
'We will continue to work to improve access and affordability at Iowa's public universities, particularly for Iowa residents,” Rastetter said. 'We are confident that the board initiatives approved this year, the (efficiency study) and the performance based funding model, will allow the universities to direct additional resources to our students rather than asking our students to pay more.”
Regent Larry McKibben proposed the freeze at the board's last meeting and said he feels strongly that it's necessary to begin reversing a recent history of sharp tuition increases in Iowa. From 2001 to 2005, tuition spiked nearly 60 percent, he said, pushing Iowa's student debt level to sixth in the nation.
In 2002 alone, McKibben said, tuition rose by 18.5 percent, and in 2003 it increased more than 17 percent. Those hikes have forced some Iowans to choose between food and clothing and education, McKibben said.
'And that is absolutely unsatisfactory,” he said. 'We owe them better.”
Following the board's decision Wednesday, UI President Sally Mason released a statement thanking the regents for the freeze.
'It's a great help in our mission to provide a top-quality education and learning environment for our students, while maintaining a price that's affordable,” she said.
Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds on Wednesday also released a statement applauding the historic move and vowing to craft a state budget 'with hopes to continue the tuition freeze” after receiving the Revenue Estimating Conference's report later this month.
'We commend the Iowa Board of Regents for working with us to give Iowa students access to affordable, high-quality education in Iowa,” Branstad said.