Education

Iowa regents to vote on tuition freeze in June

University leaders asking lawmakers to fully fund state aid

Students interrupt the Board of Regents meeting on Feb. 5 in Urbandale with calls for a tuition freeze and increased sta
Students interrupt the Board of Regents meeting on Feb. 5 in Urbandale with calls for a tuition freeze and increased state funding for Iowa’s universities. The regents did not respond, given the students missed the comment period at the beginning of the meeting and a discussion of tuition rates was not on the agenda. (Vanessa Miller/The Gazette)

While much remains unknown about the fall semester for college and university students, the state’s Board of Regents on Monday took a step toward stability in one key area: tuition.

The nine volunteer regents breezed through their first required reading of fall tuition rates — which they now propose will be frozen for the coming school year, even though an increase had been planned.

“The COVID-19 epidemic is unprecedented,” according to the board’s 2020-21 tuition proposal. “It is important that our students, families and our institutions have as much financial predictability as possible. Therefore, it is recommended there be no increases in tuition rates or mandatory fees.”

The board will consider formally freezing tuition in June — even as its three public universities have canceled in-person summer classes and programming on campus, adding to the many millions they’ve already lost in revenue and refunds.

The universities collectively project losing at least $193 million through the summer from coronavirus-related measures. That total does not include losses at University of Iowa Health Care, which to date has taken a $70 million COVID-19 hit via extra expenses and lost revenue.

But the universities aren’t looking to make up those losses through tuition, given that fall enrollment projections are down and students are worried online-only classes could continue in the fall.

The Board of Regents and university leaders are planning to bring students, faculty and staff back to campus — even if a fall return comes with extra safety and social distancing measures.

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“While we are modeling various fiscal alternatives, we are also intently exploring how to safely resume daily activities in preparation for face-to-face education on Aug. 24,” University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld told the Board of Regents last week.

By freezing tuition and fees for the fall, the university will be relying more heavily on lawmakers to fill their entire appropriations request for the 2021 budget year — including an additional $18 million in general education dollars, for a total of $642.4 million.

“As I have said many times, without strong, predictable financial commitment from our state, it is difficult for us to maintain the excellence you and Iowans expect,” Harreld said in his remarks to the board. “In times like this, that state support becomes even more vital in order for us deliver on our mission for the state.”

Should the state — facing other monumental COVID-19 financial burdens — come through with the full $18 million increase for the universities, $7 million would go to both the UI and Iowa State University, and $4 million would go to the University of Northern Iowa.

The governor’s 2021 budget recommended a 3.04 percent increase in general education support for the three universities, meaning $6.7 million more for the UI, $5.3 million more for Iowa State and $3 million more for UNI.

Under the board’s five-year tuition plan, that level of state funding would have meant tuition increases above 3 percent for UI and ISU resident undergraduate students and maybe more for non-residents, graduates and those in costlier programs.

The newly proposed tuition and fees freeze, if approved in June, will keep UNI students paying the same for the second straight year and keep ISU and UI rates among the lowest in their respective peer groups.

STUDENT REACtion

One group of students claimed victory after the board unveiled its tuition-freeze proposal.

Iowa Student Action said the freeze will save Iowa students and their families $6.5 million.

The group shut down a Board of Regents meeting in February by protesting via chant, song and bullhorn for a tuition freeze, among other things.

“After two years of fighting for a tuition freeze at the University of Iowa and Iowa State University, Iowa Student Action declares victory after the Iowa Board of Regents announced their recommendation for a zero percent increase in tuition or fees for the fall semester,” the group said in a news release.

The group did not note the regents’ citation of COVID-19 for the freeze but said the decision “shows us that the regents have always had the power to freeze tuition and make campuses safer for students of color, but they have chosen not to.”

“We’re glad they’re taking this step to support Iowa students now,” Iowa State student Alexa Rodriguez said in a statement. “But we know that we wouldn’t be here without the organizing we were doing for the last two years.”

And while the group celebrated the proposed freeze, it sustained its push for more aid for struggling students — many of whom are dealing not only with health emergencies but financial emergencies, as the coronavirus has racked the economy.

“The cost of education is devastating normally, and it shouldn’t have taken a pandemic to get us to this point,” Naomi Runder, organizer of Chicago Student Action, said in a statement.

Iowa Student Action on Friday released a petition paralleling University of Chicago demands for half-tuition reimbursement for the spring semester, reduced tuition during the crisis, and extension of the tuition freeze for five years.

Iowa’s public universities refunded on-campus students the portion of their housing and dining contracts that went unused. But the institutions declined to refund spring tuition and fees.

CARES Act aid

The public universities — counting on federal aid to mitigate the COVID-19 blow — are releasing more information about how students can capitalize on those relief funds.

Iowa’s public universities are expecting from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (or CARES) Act a collective $45.5 million, half of which must go to students.

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To be eligible for a cut of the $8.3 million available for UI students hit with financial woes related to COVID-19 the disruptions, applicants must meet a range of requirements and demonstrate coronavirus-related financial hardship.

UI students are urged to apply as soon as possible, and officials said they might consider factors such as GPA, financial need and date of submission, in considering applications.

“Applications will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis,” according to the UI Office of Student Financial Aid. “Submitting an application does not guarantee approval of the requested funds.”

Application review could take up to two weeks — with funds coming two to three business days following approval.

In a message to her campus Friday, ISU President Wendy Wintersteen announced $10.9 million in “emergency funding opportunities” for students who’ve experienced “unanticipated financial need due to the crisis” and seek help with food, housing, class materials, technology, health and child care.

Iowa State, like the UI and University of Northern Iowa, is asking student applicants to demonstrate COVID-19-specific needs — such as a lost job or health care expenses.

Students who don’t meet the applicant requirements can seek help through other resources, according to Wintersteen — who highlighted a #CycloneStrong campaign funded by donors.

“We recognize the COVID-19 pandemic is causing significant hardships for many students and their families,” she said in her campus communication.

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

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