Higher education

University of Iowa students pitch alternative tuition hike

Board of Regents to make decision in July

A Board of Regents meeting at the Iowa Memorial Union on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City on Wednesday, Mar. 11, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
A Board of Regents meeting at the Iowa Memorial Union on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City on Wednesday, Mar. 11, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Faced with voting on the largest tuition increases in years — and with University of Iowa students pleading for moderation — the Board of Regents is crafting a five-year plan that could help students and families get a better handle on budgeting for the cost of higher education at Iowa’s public universities.

Students from the state’s three public universities suggested to the board, meeting Thursday in Ames, that regents consider planning for measured, annual increases in the future that give families the ability to plan and that avoid last-minute debates about rate hikes just months before new costs take effect.

Regents President Bruce Rastetter told reporters the board is considering something like that — creating a five-year tuition plan that would move away from the tradition of setting rates annually based on allocations from the Legislature.

“We need longer-term planning,” he said. “None of us like ... reacting to the annual budget of the state each year as to whether we can hold tuition to a very modest level or whether we have to raise it. So we will be working on a five-year strategic plan.”

A proposal before the board would raise tuition rates for resident undergraduates at all three regent campuses by $300 a year and for other students — depending on residency and program — by as much as $800 a year.

Last week, Gov. Terry Branstad called for a more modest increase. At the meeting Thursday, UI students did, too. They asked that rates increase $200 a year for all students, regardless of residency and program.

Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa student representatives also voiced concern with rate increases but did not offer alternatives, saying they will support the proposal for this year.

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Because the board requires two readings to set tuition, regents won’t make a final decision on proposed increases for the upcoming school year until their July meeting. But, before the students spoke during Thursday’s meeting, Rastetter said he’ll support the proposal — citing previous discussions with students and university presidents about needs across the campuses.

“We have a responsibility to make sure the quality of these institutions does not slip backward,” Rastetter said during the morning portion of the meeting. “So I, for one, will be supporting (the increases) as we look forward to the final vote in July.”

Josh Schoenfeld, UI Graduate and Professional Student Government president, took issue with that statement of support before the student presentations and the full board’s first discussion on the topic in the afternoon.

“We find it rather frustrating that the regents asked the students to come here to provide comments on tuition ... but when we get here we have multiple regents that state they are going to support this increase even before the students are able to speak,” Schoenfeld said. “We believe this undermines the whole premise of shared governance ...”

Rastetter later expressed surprise at those comments — and with the UI proposal — as board members met with students in the morning and the $200 proposal never came up, he said.

“We had breakfast this morning and I didn’t hear any of that from them,” Rastetter said, adding, “I understand the student concerns about tuition increases. It’s unfortunate there wasn’t a process that they asked for that earlier and were involved with.”

The tuition-hike currently on the table comes in addition to rate increases the board previously approved for the upcoming academic year. For example, because UI resident undergraduates already were facing a $200 increase for the fall, another $300 bump would have them paying $500 more.

Regent Larry McKibben told student representatives the increases are far from a forgone conclusion.

“This is a painful discussion for me,” he said. “If you think I’ve made up my mind, the short answer is I certainly have not. ... And I think the rest of my colleagues heard you, listened to you.”

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The board has pegged the need for a tuition increase on shortcomings in state support. The Board had asked for $20.34 million more in general education funding for the upcoming budget year, and lawmakers instead approved $6.3 million.

With a $500,000 cut to the Board of Regents Office, which Rastetter said is to be backfilled by the universities, the increase in appropriations is close to $5.8 million, he said.

UI President Bruce Harreld said paring down the proposed tuition increases for the upcoming academic year would make it harder for him to move the university ahead.

“If the mission, which I believe is my charge, is to continue driving the University of Iowa back into the top ranks nationally, I need some resources,” Harreld said. “If, in fact, the students want to take that roughly in half of what we’ve proposed, it’s just going to stretch out the time and make it a lot more difficult, while a lot of our competitors are continuing to zoom ahead.”

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