Iowa universities will keep tuition frozen for spring, expect fall increases

'I strongly believe it's the right thing to do'

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 CITY — After couching this fall’s coronavirus-compelled tuition freeze with the caveat that rates could go up in the spring, Iowa’s Board of Regents announced Wednesday costs will stay put for the rest of the academic year — but not for next fall.

“Because of COVID-19, pausing the five-year tuition model for one academic year was the right thing to do,” board President Michael Richards said during a regents meeting. “But in balancing the financial needs of our future institutions, we are planning to resume the five-year tuition plan beginning with the fall 2021 semester.”

University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld commended the decision to resume rate hikes at his institution and at Iowa State University, as both campuses Wednesday reported financial challenges from the pandemic and looming demographic headwinds.

“I strongly believe it’s the right thing to do,” Harreld said. “I’m very appreciative, President Richards, that you’re making the statement that after this freeze, we’re coming back into that model. I think it’s not only right for the universities, but it’s also right for families because it gives them a sense of predictability.”

The board’s decisions leaves the 2020-21 academic year baseline tuition rate for resident undergraduates at $8,073 at the UI, $8,042 at ISU and $7,665 at the University of Northern Iowa.

Before COVID-19 hobbled campus operations — forcing courses online last spring and reshaping nearly every aspect of the collegiate experience this fall — the board in 2018 had unveiled a five-year tuition model aimed at giving students and families line of sight to their future expenses.

According to the model, meant to offset declines in state funding, the UI and ISU would raise residential undergraduate tuition at least 3 percent a year — if lawmakers fulfill the board’s appropriations request — or more, depending on how much state support is below the board’s ask.

Under the model, rates could go higher for graduate and non-residential students. And the UNI was excluded, as the smaller campus has a different set of institutions it compares itself to and competes with.

But Iowa’s public universities have suffered from shrinking legislative financial support.

“We wonder why we’re having increases and the need for an increase in tuition, or why we’re not being able to have an increase in salaries, or actually support excellent programs,” Harreld said. “This is a big concern.”

Acknowledging students and families are facing financial hardships as well, UI and ISU administrators Wednesday shared some of the financial impacts COVID-19 has had on their campuses.

ISU President Wendy Wintersteen said the total pandemic hit there has topped $150 million — including a $41 million general fund budget reduction this year, more than $70 million in lost revenue, $20 million in added costs and about $21 million in refunds.

“We’re facing some very, extremely challenging financial times here, right now,” she said.

Harreld, citing realities facing higher education across the Midwest and East Coast signaling shrinking pools of prospective students, highlighted his campus’ recent endeavor to partner with a private collaborative for operation of its utilities system, and suggested more of that could come.

“You should also know that I’ve asked and authorized a group to start looking for what’s the next public-private partnership across the University of Iowa,” Harreld told the regents. “We need several more of these to get better ahead of the fiscal headwinds.”

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