CORONAVIRUS

Iowa regents freeze tuition rates for fall; students request it last longer

Regent president reaffirms students will return to campus this fall

Departing Regent Larry McKibben (center) and Rachael Johnson (right) listen to a speaker during the public comments sect
Departing Regent Larry McKibben (center) and Rachael Johnson (right) listen to a speaker during the public comments section of the Iowa Board of Regents meeting at the University of Iowa’s Levitt Center for University Advancement in Iowa City, Iowa, on Thursday, April 18, 2019. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Iowa’s public university students will be back this fall to have “as full a range of on-campus experiences as possible” — without a tuition increase, at least for now.

The Board of Regents unanimously agreed Thursday to freeze tuition rates across its three campuses for the upcoming all semester — although that doesn’t commit the board to extend the freeze to spring.

Rather, the nine volunteer regents later this fall could re-evaluate University of Iowa, Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa tuition and fee rates for the spring semester “as more information becomes available.”

Regents didn’t say what new information they’d consider for spring rates, and board members didn’t discuss student calls for the freeze to last at least through the full 2020-2021 academic year.

“We are incredibly grateful for your decision to freeze tuition for the fall semester, and we urge you to extend the freeze to the spring semester,” UNI student body President Elle Boeding told regents. “The economic impacts of COVID-19 will extend far beyond the fall, and our students deserve the opportunity to continue their education for the same cost as in the fall.”

A midyear increase could be jarring and consequential for some students, said Paul Esker, a third-year UI law student who serves as government relations chair for UI Graduate and Professional Student Government.

“Many are here for three, four or even seven years at a time, and we’re not taking semesters a la carte,” he said. “It will be jarring for many students if this tuition freeze is lifted for the spring semester, especially if tuition increases dramatically.

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“In fact, many of us won’t even have a choice,” he said. “This isn’t really a free market system. Rather, many of us are in programs that must be completed in lockstep.”

Esker argued even a tuition freeze into spring would fall short of addressing student needs during this pandemic following “20 years of skyrocketing tuition.”

“It’s no secret why the national student debt burden has eclipsed $1.6 trillion,” he said. “Freezing tuition now against that backdrop is like plugging a leak in your basement but not doing anything about all the water that already got in.”

Regents in 2018 unveiled a five-year tuition model meant to give UI and ISU students and families a line of sight to stepped annual increases at those two schools of at least 3 percent — maybe more if lawmakers fail to fund their appropriations requests.

Both on Thursday and also in recent weeks and months, students have complained to the board about rising tuition rates’ disparate impact on minority students.

Esker argued Thursday the nation’s new economic woes won’t disappear anytime soon.

“This is a crisis that is not temporary for students and their families,” he said. “Hundreds of thousands of Iowans are entirely out of work. And the unemployment statistics do not even capture the thousands of students who have lost a part-time job that they used to fund their education. It is going to take students and families a lot longer than six months to dig out of this hole.”

But student leaders also acknowledged the universities’ daunting challenges — as the campuses compete for students and top faculty with other esteemed institutions nationally, while facing tens of millions in COVID-19-related losses that federal aid isn’t enough to cover.

Students vowed to partner with the campuses in advocating for more legislative support, though the state budget is projected to suffer, too.

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By freezing rates for the fall, the regents held UI resident undergraduate tuition at $8,073; ISU base rates at $8,042; and UNI rates at $7,665. The freeze applies to graduate and professional students too, as well as non-resident and international students.

In mid-March, all three campuses ceased in-person instruction and moved classes online as the coronavirus spread. Summer courses have remained virtual-only, and study abroad programming remains stalled — hampering the traditional collegiate experience for tens of thousands of students.

But board President Mike Richards reiterated his system’s commitment to resume on-campus learning this fall.

“We have been clear that our intention is to open our campuses this fall, including in-person instruction, open residence halls, on-campus dining and campus activities,” he said.

The universities and the board have created committees and teams tasked with crafting plans to make that happen, Richards said.

“We do believe that we can open our campuses in a safe manner,” he said. “There are many details to be worked out, both inside and out of the classroom. When our campuses open, we plan to have as full a range of on-campus experiences as possible, including athletics.”

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

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