Higher education

Iowa universities start to shift thinking on tuition

'Late spring or summer tuition increases cannot become a new precedent'

The Old Capitol building is shown in Iowa City on Monday, March 30, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
The Old Capitol building is shown in Iowa City on Monday, March 30, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

On the verge of approving another last-minute tuition increase just months before it takes effect, regents, university presidents and students converged Monday on the need to recalibrate how they think about tuition rates, student debt and state support from now on.

Such an ideological shift could involve long-range planning that maps out annual — and perhaps significant — tuition increases, giving prospective students line-of-sight to future rates so they can at least prepare to pay more.

“Late spring or summer tuition increases cannot become a new precedent,” Interim Iowa State University President Ben Allen said Monday during a Board of Regents meeting. “We understand the hardship this places on our students and their families. That’s why we believe it’s time to take a fundamentally different approach with respect to tuition.”

Allen suggested any new funding structure for Iowa’s public universities should “more appropriately align tuition with the cost of providing an (Association of American Universities)-caliber education.”

And he wasn’t alone in asking the board to plan out “substantial” future tuition increases.

University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld repeated his call for a five-year plan to increase the cost of a UI education, moving it closer to that of peer institutions and enabling the UI to better compete for top-rated faculty.

Student leaders voiced disappointment in budget cuts that took millions from the campuses and opposed the heavier financial burden students will have to carry. But they acknowledged a need for more revenue.

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“If we allow the quality of our programs to decline, we will undo the impact and influence that we have across the country,” said Grant Jerkovich, vice president of the UI Graduate and Professional Student Government. “Students want to have their degree mean something. We want the University of Iowa to be known as a world-class institute, not as a bargain college.”

Monday’s discussion comes while higher education across the country is losing legislative support for more increases amid tight budgets.

“I have said over and over again here in Iowa — and at my institution — the sooner we start realizing that that’s a long-term trend and planning for it … the better off we will be,” Harreld said.

Monday’s debate accompanied the board’s first reading of a tuition proposal made public Friday that would add 3 percent to an already-approved 2-percent increase for resident undergraduates at all three public university campuses this fall.

The board considers a final approval in June.

For resident undergrads at the schools, the 5 percent total increase comes to $358 more this fall than last.

ISU and the University of Northern Iowa are looking to keep the impact of the last-minute, 3 percent increase to $216 per student, regardless of residency, program or enrollment type.

The UI, however, is proposing a 3.8 percent increase for all other student classifications, resulting in a broader array of hikes. UI non-resident undergrad rates, for example, could go up by another $1,078.

Regents approved a similar last-minute tuition increase last summer after lawmakers failed to fulfill the funding request. Board leaders vowed to avoid a repeat, so long as the Legislature upped appropriations by 2 percent.

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Even after lawmakers, facing a slower-than-expected growth in state revenues, clawed back $20.8 million from the current’s budget, then- regents President Bruce Rastetter reiterated his commitment to keep tuition set for fall.

But after lawmakers further cut regents funding for fiscal 2018, Rastetter said the board had little choice.

The proposed tuition rates are expected to generate $25.7 million — $16.5 million for the UI, $7.12 million for ISU and $2 million for UNI.

Still, UNI President Mark Nook said this year’s increases — even with the late bump — won’t be enough to “completely cover either our increases in inflationary costs or the decreases in our other revenue.”

A large proportion of UNI students come from within Iowa and pay the lower resident tuition.

Harreld said UI applications are up but the campus isn’t looking to grow enrollment. “The actions we’re proposing today will have, I think, a minuscule impact on our overall student body,” he said.

The differing potential effects of another tuition increase highlights the universities’ diverging missions. It also speaks to ideological shifts some are advocating, including outgoing ISU President Steven Leath, who — on his last official day Monday before he heads to lead Auburn University — talked of student debt.

“In the ideal world, they would graduate with no debt,” he said. “But I’m not sure that’s necessary. I’m not even sure that’s ideal. Because students perform better when they have skin in the game.”

Student advocates suggested regents push lawmakers to allow those attending public universities to receive aid through the state-supported Iowa Tuition Grant, now reserved for students attending private colleges in Iowa.

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But Cornell College President Jonathan Brand said in an interview the grant was meant to support a broad and diverse higher education system in Iowa, where private institutions receive no direct Legislative support.

“Were our Iowa students forced to share the (Iowa Tuition Grant) with our public universities, I would expect the public universities in kind to share their much more significant taxpayer support with us and our students,” he said.

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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