By Vanessa Miller, The Gazette
CEDAR FALLS — Lawmakers, who in the coming months begin working through another state budget, voiced support Monday for a new Board of Regents initiative to plan two years out for tuition increases — and urged regents to go even farther.
During a meeting in Cedar Falls of the Iowa Legislature’s fiscal committee, co-chair Rep. Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said he wants regents to help students budget four years ahead.
“It’s just looking at students having the ability to know what four years of education would cost,” Grassley said. “How do we get to that point? Is that where we’re trying to get right now? Because I think it should be.”
Regents President Bruce Rastetter said it is, and the board has asked its university presidents to think how to get there.
“We’ve seen some different plans of that,” he said. “But … that should be a natural goal of the regents.”
Over the summer, the board debuted a forward-looking plan that envisions increasing resident undergraduate tuition rates 2 percent in each of the next two academic years while also seeking 2 percent increases in state money each year.
Nonetheless, tuition could go up more in the second year if state appropriations fall short of what the board wants.
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The board next month is scheduled to consider final approval of tuition rates for the 2017-2018 school year, including the 2 percent bump for resident undergrads and higher increases for non-resident students and those pursuing academic programs that cost more to provide.
The board historically has discussed tuition and appropriations one year at a time, but late-running legislative sessions in recent years have prompted last-minute tuition increases across the university campuses.
Rep. Dave Jacoby, D-Coralville, was among lawmakers Monday who stressed the importance of avoiding surprises in helping families budget, reducing student debt and potentially improving four-year grad rates.
“I know you’re asking for two years, but honest to gosh that years three and four are probably what worries families even more,” he said. “So if there’s a way the Board of Regents could actually look longitudinal at three years and four … that would help immensely.”
Rastetter said the two-year plan is a step toward that goal, but he acknowledged the difficulty of balancing university budgets that depend not only on tuition revenue but on appropriations, enrollment trends, fundraising and other factors.
“One of our challenges is we’re dependent upon state appropriations, which I think all of us practically realize is dependent upon state revenue and the economy of Iowa,” he said.
Because tuition rates depend on the number and type of students paying, regents and lawmakers closely track trends.
Regents Director of Institutional Research Jason Pontius told lawmakers Monday that enrollment has been increasing, with record enrollment this year for the three regent universities combined, including record numbers at the University of Iowa and Iowa State University.
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About 60 percent of the regent total 81,899 students are Iowa residents, with the rest coming from outside Iowa.
Pontius said the state Department of Education is projecting the number of high school graduates in Iowa will remain flat in the coming years, potentially affecting the universities’ growth.
Projections show slower growth in the coming decade — about 6 percent more students are expected by 2026.
But lawmakers Monday noted that many Iowans move away to get a degree, or don’t pursue higher education at all.
“We need to stop the frame of reference that we’re competing against a fixed pool, when we have stats in front of us right now that show there are a lot of Iowans who don’t even show up,” said Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Cedar Falls.