Higher education

Lawmakers recommend $6.3 million for Iowa regent universities, meaning likely tuition hikes

Proposal falls far short of request for funding

Iowa State University President Steven Leath speaks during an Education Appropriations Subcommittee at the Iowa State Capitol in April 2014. The committee Wednesday proposed $6.3 million more for regent universities.(David Purdy/The Des Moines Register)
Iowa State University President Steven Leath speaks during an Education Appropriations Subcommittee at the Iowa State Capitol in April 2014. The committee Wednesday proposed $6.3 million more for regent universities.(David Purdy/The Des Moines Register)

DES MOINES — State lawmakers Wednesday agreed to a higher education spending plan that amounts to less than one-third the new appropriations requested by the Iowa Board of Regents, likely meaning tuition increases across the board.

Sen. Brian Schoenjahn, D-Arlington, and Rep. Cecil Dolecheck, R-Mount Ayr, said the Education Appropriations Subcommittee they co-chair likely will approve a $6.3 million appropriations bump for the state’s three public universities in the 2016-17 budget year. Of that, $2.8 million would go to University of Northern Iowa, $2.2 million would go to Iowa State University, and $1.3 million would go to University of Iowa.

Community colleges, which saw no increase last year, woud get a $3 million bump under the committee’s proposal, which will plug into the total $1,009,736,682 education appropriations recommendation and likely see floor action late this week or early next. Once the House and Senate approve the plan, it will go to Gov. Terry Branstad, who previously recommended an $8 million increase in appropriations for the regent universities.

The $6.3 million addition, while slightly higher than predictions earlier this week, falls below the level board officials said would be necessary to avoid a tuition hike. This amount is well below the more than $20 million the Board of Regents had requested for the coming budget year.

Specifically, the board had requested $8.2 million for Iowa State, which has seen soaring enrollment of late; $7.7 million for UNI, which has mostly in-state students who pay lower tuition rates; and $4.5 million for UI, which rates low nationally in faculty compensation.

The shortfall, according to the university leaders, perpetuates a decline in state support for higher education. The state’s portion of regent university general funding has plummeted from 77.4 percent in 1981 to 34.3 percent this year, while the portion covered by tuition has risen from 20.8 percent to 61.2 percent during the same period.

With 2017 funding falling short of expectations again, university heads said tuition will rise.

ISU President Steven Leath on Wednesday told The Gazette his staff is weighing multiple options to accommodate growing student demand with floundering state support. Higher tuition for everyone is likely, he said, but the university also is considering differential tuition — applying higher rates for students in more expensive programs.

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The university also is considering changing admission standards, potentially slowing some of the enrollment growth, and altering recruitment strategies by focusing more resources on out-of-state students who pay higher tuition.

“The only alternative for us is increase the cost to the students and their families,” Leath said. “We have talked to students and faculty, and they feel strongly that a modest increase is a reasonable course of action.”

Iowa State’s total enrollment has grown 41 percent in the last decade — surging from 25,462 in 2005 to 36,001 in the fall. That marked the seventh year of record enrollment and the ninth straight year of growth, and it has left the university struggling to provide services in some areas, like student health, public safety, housing, and guidance counseling.

“We have grown the equivalent of the entire student body at UNI,” Leath said. “It’s unfortunate that this unprecedented growth and tremendous demand for an ISU education is timed with a tightening of state revenues and support for higher education.”

About 56 percent of Iowa State students are from Iowa — or a total of 21,064 — and those students pay lower tuition rates that don’t cover the cost of providing an education. Because ISU is educating more residents than the other public universities, Leath said, it should get a bigger slice of the limited state appropriations pie.

“I think we expect the Legislature to be sensitive to the fact that we have more Iowa kids here than the other schools,” Leath said. Among the biggest concerns Leath has with his univeristy’s growth is the impact it has had on student-to-teacher ratios. The campus needs more faculty because, Leath said, he’s not willing to dramatically increase class sizes.

“From the day I got here to today, I’ve said access and affordability without quality is not a good value,” Leath said. “So I don’t think we’ll have much larger class sizes. We’ll continue to hire faculty and keep quality where it’s at.”

Iowa State also is working to become increasingly efficient and more resourceful. But, as far as revenue goes, tuition will be the main source, and Leath said ISU officials are working on potential revenue models they hope to have ready within 30 days.

Any decision to alter tuition ultimately lies with the Board of Regents.

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“By the end of May, we would like to have a plan to unveil about what we have from the state and what we need to do with tuition over the next year to make everything work,” Leath said.

Although Leath said his team still is finalizing proposed tuition hikes, they won’t be smaller than the 3 percent increase implemented for this spring semester after lawmakers were late last year in approving lower-than-expected appropriations.

“Of 11 schools in our peer group, we are No. 11 for cost,” Leath said. “We could actually raise tuition $1,000 and still be at 11. We don’t plan to raise it to that level, but we are so much more reasonably priced than our peers, it’s not unreasonable to raise the cost to deal with this growth.”

ISU officials also haven’t decided whether to propose increasing rates this fall or spring 2017.

“We want to make sure families have time to plan,” he said.

UI President Bruce Harreld said his team also is running different revenue models that include tuition increases and fee hikes.

“We are clearly looking at alternative revenue sources,” Harreld said. “I would say everything’s on the table.”

Harreld said he doesn’t want to get ahead of regent discussions on the topic, but he did express disappointment in the state’s lackluster financial support for higher education.

“I think it’s sad that Americans, not just Iowans, are putting higher education lower in our priorities when higher education has been such an important driver of economic growth, democracy, and our culture,” he said. “I understand the pressures they’re under. On the other hand, we need these higher education institutions. They’re really important.”

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Before this year, Iowa’s Board of Regents had managed to freeze resident undergraduate tuition for three years, a move that many argued had the biggest impact on UNI — with its largely resident student population.

Leaders and lawmakers representing that institution have said flagging state support could mean cuts, among other changes, at the institution.

“There has been a shift in who’s paying, driven by the Legislature’s pulling back,” Harreld said. “Tuition goes up. Student debt goes up. And here we are. I think it’s a very problematic cycle.”

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