Education

Iowa regents postpone tuition-setting debate

'Once we have enough information we will set tuition rates'

Paramount to a new five-year tuition model the Board of Regents unveiled in November is its predictability and reliability — meaning regents will set rates just once a year and won’t make late, last-minute changes should lawmakers enact cuts or appropriate less funding than requested or expected.

With that in mind, regents on Tuesday announced they aren’t planning to consider the first of two required readings for 2019-2020 tuition rates during their meeting next week because they don’t know enough about the state’s budget or funding for its public universities and special schools.

“However, as the Legislature continues its consideration of state appropriations, it is possible that tuition could be added to the agenda if more information becomes available,” according to a Board of Regents news release Tuesday. “If tuition is added, it will be done so no later than 24 hours prior to the meeting, as required by state law.”

If it’s not added to the upcoming agenda, and the funding picture remains too hazy for the board’s tuition-setting comfort, regents will call a special meeting for the rates’ first reading in either late April or early May — depending on when they know more. That will allow the board to consider final approval of fall rates during its June 4-6 meeting, as planned.

The board needs more information on state appropriations before setting rates for the fall because its new tuition model hinges on the degree of legislative support.

For the University of Iowa and Iowa State University, the board is following a “guardrails” model that limits base undergraduate tuition increases to 3 percent if the state fully funds the regents’ appropriations request.

On the other end of the tuition rate range is the base increase should lawmakers provide no additional funding. In that case, UI and ISU costs will go up 3 percent, plus the projected Higher Education Price Index, which this year is estimated at 2 percent.

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And should lawmakers partially fund the board’s appropriation request, the base resident undergraduate rate increase would fall somewhere between that three to five-percent range.

The model doesn’t include a scenario for funding cuts — like the ones lawmakers enacted recently, prompting the public universities to freeze faculty pay, nix some scholarship programs, halt new campus construction for a period, and close some centers.

And the model looks different for University of Northern Iowa, which has a different student-body makeup and peer group of lower-cost regional institutions.

Because Iowa students pay lower tuition rates, and UNI boasts a majority in-state students, it generates less in tuition revenue than ISU and UI — a gap it can’t make up by hiking rates because that would hurt UNI’s ability to remain competitive among its peers.

Thus, resident undergraduate tuition at UNI will remain frozen if lawmakers fully fund its 2019-20 appropriations request, according to the board’s tuition model. It’s unclear if or how much UNI rates would increase if lawmakers fall short of UNI’s funding request.

The board in September 2018 approved an appropriations request for the 2020 budget year seeking $18 million more in general university state support. That would be split $7 million to both UI and ISU and $4 million to UNI — with all three campuses vowing to use the money on student financial aid.

Gov. Kim Reynolds in January proposed giving the regents all the money they asked for — welcome news to a Board of Regents that in recent years saw state aid slashed by more than $40 million. But lawmakers haven’t wrapped their budgeting process — leaving too many unknowns for the regents.

“One of the key elements in our new model was that tuition would only be set one time, so we may have to wait,” Board of Regents President Mike Richards said in a statement. “We want predictability for our students, and once we have enough information we will set tuition rates.”

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The board last summer increased resident undergraduate rates about 4 percent at UI and ISU — bringing the total cost to $7,770 and $7,740, respectively. It increased those base rates at UNI about 3 percent to $7,665.

Including base tuition rates, mandatory fees, room and board, and other expenses, the estimated cost for a resident undergraduate student to attend UI, ISU, and UNI is $22,101, $21,172, and $20,836, respectively.

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

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