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The cost for an Iowa resident to get an undergraduate degree at one of the state's three public universities has been about the same for years. But with legislative support for public higher education slipping, prompting some university administrators to plead for freedom to push tuition higher, University of Northern Iowa President Mark Nook said he's OK being the lower-cost option.
Nook, while meeting with The Gazette's editorial board Friday, acknowledged big changes across higher education nationally and in Iowa, where he said the Board of Regents, university presidents and legislators need to have a broad and frank discussion about how to fund the institutions. What results could alter decades-old norms and affect student pocketbooks, the state economy, the region's reputation, and academic and research endeavors across the country and world.
'I think we are at a place in the funding of higher ed in the state that we need to look at everything,” Nook said.
Past regent and UNI leaders have expressed hesitation at the prospect of allowing the University of Iowa and Iowa State University to drive up their tuition while UNI keeps costs low for fear the Cedar Falls campus will lose prestige and be perceived as providing a second-tier education.
'There has been an argument made in the state of Iowa over the years that we want the three institutions - UNI, Iowa and Iowa State - to have the same tuition because the value is the same,” Nook said.
But Nook, who took over as UNI president in February, said the reality is UNI's cost to deliver a course 'might actually be less.”
'If we can deliver the same high-quality education at a cost point that's less, let's talk about that,” Nook said.
Part of the reason UNI can provide an education at a lower cost is its regional comprehensive mission - with renowned programs in education and accounting - while UI and ISU are members of the Association of American Universities, an organization of leading research institutions, with top-tier programs in medicine, engineering, and agriculture.
'We're about different things as institutions - the research component at Iowa State and Iowa is big. Delivering the hospital at Iowa is big, and those take different dollars,” Nook said. 'I personally don't have a problem with our tuition being lower than at Iowa and Iowa State, because it's not clear that the tuition for Iowa students is directly tied to the quality.”
Iowa residents, who pay lower tuition than out-of-state students, make up a large majority of UNI's student body - more so than at UI and ISU. Because state appropriations are, in part, meant to subsidize those state students, Nook said upping UNI's state support also should be discussed.
'If the state wants to talk about let's subsidize one more than the other so we can provide a lower cost at one of them - let's have that conversation as well,” he said.
Iowa State and UI recently implemented an array of differential tuition rates - depending on student type, program pursuits and enrollment level. UNI, meanwhile, has kept its rate structure simple. Nook said he might revisit that as all the campuses scramble to find the best funding model at a time when state appropriations seem unlikely to return to levels seen decades ago.
In 1981, state appropriations made up 77.4 percent of the regent schools' total general education funding. Today that proportion has dropped to about 33 percent, while tuition at the start of the current budget year made up 62.5 percent of the general education pot.
That tuition proportion will increase further should the Board of Regents give final approval to a last-minute rate hike for fall adding $216 to the cost for resident undergraduates.
The tuition bump is expected to generate $25.7 million combined - including about $2 million for UNI. But that revenue won't close the gap caused by significant cuts in the most recent legislative session.
In total, the state slashed $20.8 million from its higher education appropriations in the current budget year and another $9.6 million from its 2018 appropriations. For UNI, that amounts to more than $3.3 million.
'We think we can find and close that gap with some of these efficiencies,” Nook said. 'But it's always difficult. Because about 70 percent of our budget is personnel. So a lot of this is handled with not hiring quite as many adjunct part-time faculty members and other people on staff. We'll have to leave a position or two open.”
More students paying the higher tuition rates could help shrink the divide between UNI's budget expectations and realities, and Nook said he'd eventually like to grow the campus from its 11,900 enrollment to the 14,000-some of the past.
He expects to inch toward that goal this fall - anticipating 11,950 to 11,980 total students. As part of that growth, Nook said, he'd like to increase the proportion coming from outside Iowa.
'It's important that we look outside the state and we look at non-residents and international students,” Nook said. 'They are a revenue stream. They provide enough money to cover their entire cost and a little bit more.”
Resident students, however, remain a top UNI priority - although state data show the Iowa high school graduate population is changing. The percent of Iowa high school graduates who identify as Hispanic is expected to increase 83 percent between 2013 and 2023, and the percent of those who identify as black is expected to increase 60 percent.
Meanwhile, the percentage identifying as white is slated to grow just 4 percent. Nook said responding to an influx of minority, low-income, and first-generation college students will require more student aid and scholarship options.
That's why he's open to suggestions from UNI students and regent leadership that they advocate for access to the Iowa Tuition Grant, traditionally reserved for Iowa students attending local private colleges.
'If there's going to be a pot of money for higher ed that's going to continue to shrink, we've got to get everything on the table,” Nook said. 'There are clearly dollars that many of our students see as a resource that would help them lower their debt.”
Some private college leaders have pushed back against sharing Iowa Tuition Grant dollars with public university students. But Nook said some on his campus have questioned whether changes in state support warrant changes to those rules.
'Several students have said, ‘What's going on? How come we're shouldering all the burden?'” he said. 'And I think that's a question that I didn't have an answer to.”