Iowa universities distribute less financial aid as enrollment drops

While total aid declines, help for individuals 'remains steady'

The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top l
The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa including the Old Capitol Building (center), Macbride Hall (top left), Jessup Hall (bottom left), Schaeffer Hall (top right), and MacLean Hall (bottom right) in an aerial photograph. (The Gazette/file photo)

Iowa’s public universities, along with the state and federal government, awarded less financial aid to students last budget year as enrollment at the campuses fell.

But with COVID-19 further driving down enrollment while driving up the need for tuition help, the universities have stressed the importance of financial aid to lawmakers now deciding how much to appropriate the campuses and to families weighing where to send their students — and their money.

“In 2019-20, the total amount of financial aid awarded to students (both undergraduate and graduate students) was down for a second straight year from $1.09 billion last year to $1.06 billion,” according to a new Iowa Board of Regents report.

Although the drop primarily was tied to enrollment losses, the percent of financial need met for University of Iowa undergraduates from 2017-18 to 2019-20 slid from 67 percent for residents and 57 percent for non-residents to 56 percent and 50 percent, respectively.

Iowa State University’s percent of financial need met has remained static over that period, while the University of Northern Iowa reported a slight uptick in the amount of need met.

The universities have stressed the importance of financial aid in expanding opportunities for an increasingly diverse pool of Iowa high schoolers; combating a looming enrollment cliff potentially accelerated by the pandemic; and upping their competitive edge against peer institutions trying to recruit the same students.

In the regents’ appropriations proposal to lawmakers this session, the campuses vowed to dedicate at least part of a requested $18 million increase to support student financial aid — a promise the universities have made before.

Types of aid

Financial aid doesn’t come just in the form of scholarships and grants from a higher education institution. It also includes federal and private loans and campus job opportunities.


Including all aid across all three regent universities, federal financial aid has fallen from $553.7 million in 2017-18 to $517.8 million in 2019-20. Institutional aid dropped from $410.8 to $392.1 million; and state aid has been cut nearly in half from $4.5 to $2.5 million.

Only aid from private organizations, foundations, companies and other external sources increased over that span — from $133.3 to $149 million, according to the regent report.

Undergraduate students receive 70 percent of all aid available on the regent campuses — $738.1 million of $1.06 billion in 2019-20. Among the aid that went to that group, nearly 48 percent came from the federal government — largely loans — while another 35 percent came from the regent universities, which is mostly scholarships, grants and employment opportunities.

“While total university aid to undergraduates has dropped in 2019-20 from a high in 2017-18, the amount per student remains steady,” according to the board report. “In fact, the average amount of aid per student is slightly higher in 2019-20 than 2017-18.”

Net price

Those conflicting figures are due to the enrollment declines, which the pandemic made worse despite efforts to provide some semblance of a collegiate experience on the campuses.

In hopes of sustaining a pot of tuition revenue, the UI and ISU had been increasing rates until COVID-19 halted that this academic year.

Thanks to financial aid, however, the net price to attend the universities in 2019-20 — calculated by taking the average amount of grants and scholarships per student and subtracting that from a university’s sticker price — didn’t increase for everyone.

“Net price is generally a more accurate approximation of how much a student pays for college, as compared to sticker price,” according to the regent report. “On average, regent university students with the greatest financial need receive the most financial aid.”

The net price to attend a regent university in 2019-20 was $20,365 for a student from a family earning an income over $110,000, up slightly from $19,633 the year before.


But the net price dropped for some students from families with lesser adjusted gross incomes — like those making $30,000 or less, who in 2019-20 paid on average $11,278, a bit lower than $11,505 the year before.

“The regent universities continue to have among the lowest net price among Iowa four-year colleges and universities,” according to the report, showing only Maharishi University in Fairfield with a lower net price among Iowa four-year colleges and universities.

When looking at student debt, all three of the universities reported a decreasing percentage of students from Iowa graduating with debt.

But the percentage of non-Iowa residents who borrow increased at ISU and UNI, jumping about three percentage points at ISU and more than eight points at UNI from 2016-17 to 2019-2020.

And, among resident graduates, more than half on each campus graduate with debt.

“Thirty-nine percent from Iowa State University, 42.6 percent from the University of Iowa, and 30.1 percent from University of Northern Iowa graduated with no debt,” the report said.

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