Iowa's private colleges hiking costs, too

But thanks to aid, few students pay full price

Students move between classes Sept. 19, 2018, on the Coe College campus in Cedar Rapids. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Students move between classes Sept. 19, 2018, on the Coe College campus in Cedar Rapids. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Iowa State University and the University of Iowa aren’t the only institutions in the state hiking their sticker prices for a higher education — with all but two of Iowa’s private colleges doing the same, an analysis by The Gazette found.

The average tuition and fee increase for the 30 private institutions for which The Gazette obtained data for the upcoming academic year is about 3.6 percent — below the 3.9 percent bump the Board of Regents last week approved for resident undergraduates attending ISU and the UI.

But 10 of those private school increases are above the 4-percent mark — including Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids at 5.8 percent; Cornell College in Mount Vernon at 4.3 percent; and Wartburg College in Waverly at 6.4 percent — the highest annual increase in the state, the analysis showed.

The only two private schools freezing tuition and fees for the fall are Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield and St. Luke’s College in Sioux City.

When taking the long view of private college cost increases in Iowa, the average jump in combined tuition and fees is 30.5 percent since the 2012-2013 academic year, according the earliest data The Gazette obtained. Over that same period, ISU and the UI increased tuition and fees about 21 percent and 19 percent, respectively, according to Board of Regents data.

The University of Northern Iowa — among the few public or private institutions in Iowa to keep tuition frozen this fall — has seen a smaller cost increase since 2013 of 17 percent.

The across-the-board, persistent increases are indicative of the rising cost of providing higher education — not just in this state, but nationally — and the coinciding demand for more revenue to cover those costs.


Generating that revenue requires a careful balance between increasing tuition and fees while also maintaining affordability and accessibility in a hypercompetitive marketplace.

“We’ve definitely seen a drop off in enrollment,” said Elizabeth Keest Sedrel, communications coordinator with Iowa College Aid, a state agency focused on college accessibility.

Iowa’s public and private institutions are vying for fewer would-be students — both from this state and others — for a variety of reasons, including shifting demographics and a strong economy.

“When there are fewer jobs available, then more people choose to go on with their education instead of going straight into the job market,” Sedrel said. “If you look at what our unemployment rates are doing right now, it’s much easier for people to go straight into the job market — even if it’s not the most beneficial thing in the long term.”

To bridge the gap between higher expenses — including faculty salaries and technology demands — and floundering resources — including stagnant if not dipping enrollment — institutions everywhere are raising rates.

The average published tuition and fees total last year for private four-year schools nationally was $35,830, according to The College Board, a national nonprofit with data on more than 6,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. That’s more than double the $17,010 cost in 1989.

Public universities nationally follow a similar incline, though less steep, from an average of $3,360 in 1989 to $10,230 in 2018.

Iowa performs better on both fronts. The average published private college tuition and fees total for the upcoming fall is $31,599, and the average cost to attend its public universities is $9,287.

But eight private colleges in Iowa this fall have tuition and fees totals above the national average — including Coe College in Cedar Rapids at $45,580, the second-highest in the state; and Cornell at $44,096, the third highest in Iowa.

Only Grinnell College has a higher published annual tuition and fees total at $54,354.

Still, Coe President David McInally told The Gazette nearly every student on his campus gets some degree of college-funded financial aid — meaning the actual average cost to students has risen just 1 to 1.5 percent over the last four years.

“For private colleges, the published price and the actual cost to students are substantially different because we provide abundant financial aid to students from Iowa and beyond,” he said.

The College Scorecard, operated by the U.S. Department of Education, lists Coe’s average annual cost to attend at $20,767.

“Next year tuition is going up 3.47 percent,” McInally said, “but Coe’s financial aid budget is also going up 6.5 percent.”

Iowa students attending private colleges also have access to the Iowa Tuition Grant, a pot of state-appropriated funds earmarked only for private education.

That, according to Iowa College Aid Chief Research Officer Mark Wiederspan, “helps significantly lower the price for students wanting to attend a private nonprofit.”

This pricing model — higher prices paired with higher aid — provides the greatest access and opportunities for students, according to Coe’s McInally.


“For example, the average family income of Coe’s student population is actually 20 percent lower than the average family income for the University of Iowa’s student population,” he said. “I suspect the public would be surprised to learn that tax-supported public education is on average being provided to wealthier families and that private colleges serve families with a lower average income, thanks in large part to the support of private donors who believe in the benefits of a residential college education.”

The reality that only a fraction of private college students pay the full cost of their education is prevalent outside Iowa, too. Despite the tuition and fees average nearing $36,000 nationally last year, the average net tuition and fees paid by full-time students at private four-year institutions was about $14,600, The College Board found.

That’s an improvement from $15,500 in 2007-08 — calculated in 2018 dollars — although it’s up from $13,200 in 2011-12, according to the national organization.

When comparing Iowa’s net price to attend four-year, nonprofit privates with other states, it ranks 27th, at an average of $21,235 — below the national average of $21,778, according to the U.S. Department of Education Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.

Still — like with Iowa’s largest public universities, which in the fall rolled out a five-year tuition model promising at least 3 percent annual increases for the foreseeable future — Iowa’s private published rates don’t show any sign of freezing.

“I honestly don’t know,” Wiederspan said when asked what the future holds for private school costs in Iowa.

“We can look at the trend line up to now,” Sedrel said. “But if we could predict what would happen from here, we would be making tons of money as consultants.”

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