Even amid shrinking state appropriations, students at Iowa’s public universities saw a 5 percent increase in financial aid this last academic year as the universities pushed to total amount to $1.09 billion.
Although most of that total came from the federal government — largely in the form of loans — the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa all increased undergraduate aid in the 2016-17 academic year, primarily in the form of grants, scholarships and employment opportunities, according to a new Board of Regents report.
Regents and university administrators have stressed the need to increase aid in hopes of mitigating tuition increases, which have been proposed again for next year, and enrolling more first-generation and underrepresented Iowans — like Miguel Jacobo, 18, of West Liberty.
The UI freshman, majoring in Spanish and biology on a pre-med track, said his dad migrated from Mexico and his mom dropped out of middle school to take care of her siblings. They never went to college but dreamed of it for their four children.
Jacobo, being the oldest, said the UI became his dream, too — and he went after it, earning a 3.9 GPA in high school and strong enough ACT scores to land him a full-ride scholarship.
Both his parents work at Tyson Foods, but their income couldn’t have supported his higher education without putting the family “in a very very tight spot.”
“I believe it is very vital,” Jacobo said of financial aid opportunities at Iowa’s public universities. “I know some very smart people out there, but unfortunately they end up not pursuing a career because of the aid they’re not receiving.”
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Students at the regents schools with the most need receive the most financial aid. According to a regent calculation that subtracted the average amount of grants and scholarships from the total price to attend, those with a family income of $30,000 or less saw a net cost to attend of $9,637 in 2016-17. On the other hand, students from families with adjusted gross income of over $110,000 saw a net cost of $18,158.
UI President Bruce Harreld — in the wake of two cycles of midyear state funding cuts — said he would end some aid opportunities unrelated to financial need to save money. The new report highlights those changes, with UI decreasing non-need-based aid for non-resident students from $30 million in 2014-15 to $17 million last year.
Non-need-based aid for resident students at the UI still increased over that period, as it did at ISU and UNI.
The schools also saw need-based aid increase in most categories — especially at the UI, which bumped up assistance for residents demonstrating need from $15 to $22 million and for non-residents with need from $19 to $32 million.
The increases seem to have had the intended effect of decreasing student indebtedness. All three universities reported drops in the average amount of debt for in-state students who graduate with debt. The percent of students who borrow, likewise, is falling in most categories, according to the new regent report.
The UI recorded the lowest percentage of Iowa residents graduating with debt at 59 percent, down from 63 percent two years ago. ISU reports 65 percent of Iowa residents borrowed in 2016-17, down from 70 percent in 2014-15. UNI reports 72 percent, down from 74 percent two years ago.
But those efforts were of no thanks to the state, which remains the lowest of all sources of student financial aid for those attending its public universities.
The state provided $2.9 million in grants and scholarships to students last year, the same as the previous year. The universities provided $248.2 million in grants and scholarships, up over the previous year.
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When combining all forms of university-provided aid — including grants, campus employment opportunities and loans — the schools provided nearly $425 million in the last academic year, up from $391 million the previous year.
“As part of their mission to make a university education as affordable as possible, the regent universities have continued to provide increasing amounts of institutional financial aid, particularly to undergraduate students,” according to the board report.
The regents are set to discuss tuition increases for next year when the board meets Thursday in Council Bluffs. The proposal calls for a base increase of 3.8 percent at the UI and ISU and 2.8 percent at UNI.
The board in the fall asked the state for a $12 million appropriations increase in the next budget year — all of which would go toward financial aid. But the state hasn’t yet unveiled its 2019 budget priorities.
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Correspondent Ben Roberts contributed to this report.