Education

University of Iowa president urges return to tuition-increase model

Harreld warns of headwinds, airs solutions

Bruce Harreld (University of Iowa)
Bruce Harreld (University of Iowa)

IOWA CITY — University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld said Thursday he will urge a return to the five-year planned tuition increases that “created certainty for parents and families and students.”

In an address to Iowa City service groups Thursday, Harreld did not say specifically when he thinks the Board of Regents — with its president planning to discuss tuition at its meeting next week — should return to the tuition model, scuttled this fall by COVID-19 and the board’s decision to freeze tuition across its university campuses.

Pre-pandemic, the model promised annual tuition hikes of at least 3 percent for resident undergraduates at UI and Iowa State University.

According to the model, if lawmakers fully fund regent appropriations requests each year, tuition increases will stay at 3 percent. If they don’t, rates could go up by more.

Referencing the state’s generational disinvestment in higher education, which has driven its support $8 million lower today than in 1998, Harreld cited the need to find resources elsewhere — like tuition.

“We’ve lost that here a little bit recently with the pandemic,” Harreld said Thursday of the tuition revenue momentum gained via the increase model. “And I really, really, really am encouraging the state and the Board of Regents to return to that.”

All three of Iowa’s public universities saw enrollment drops this fall.

Without the planned rate hikes, that meant below-budget tuition revenue to the tune of $4.4 million collectively — or $1 million less than expected for UI, $1.9 million below expectations for Iowa State, and $1.6 million below budget for University of Northern Iowa.

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In arguing for the need for more funding from both the state and students on Thursday, Harreld also stressed campus growth is not a strategy for success in these times of headwinds across higher education — particularly for institutions in the Midwest and East Coast.

Those regions are looking at demographic shifts expected to shrink the pool of college-bound prospects, ramp up competition for the best and brightest and create dire circumstances for some institutions — now facing the additional burden of education amid a pandemic.

Harreld spelled out some strategies for weathering the storm Thursday, including improving metrics that matter on the ground and in rankings that help attract students to campus — like retention and graduation rates, research productivity and closing achievement gaps.

He stressed the UI needs to focus on continuing to excel in its areas of expertise — like its writing and arts programming.

Despite his warnings that physical growth on campus is not a strategy for success during these times, Harreld also highlighted lessons from the COVID-19-wracked semesters showing students want in-person instruction and experiences.

“I think a lot of people sort of snap to the conclusion that the whole world will move online, and we’ll never ever again be a residential campus,” he said. “But I think we now realize, if you spend any time with our students, they’re pretty frustrated with this learning environment. I think many of them are asking how much they really are learning.

“It’s monotonous. It’s boring. It’s hard to do.”

Harreld said the campus is doing what it can to keep students engaged academically.

“But nevertheless, we have to remind ourselves the importance of not just the learning environment,” he said, “but also the social learning that goes on and all the rest of our environment and how important that is.”

Presidential search

Harreld, who announced in October plans to retire as soon as a successor can start, spoke on the same day the Board of Regents announced its selection of a search firm to help find his replacement. The board will pay AGB Search, of Washington, D.C., a $90,000 fixed fee — plus expenses — for its help advertising the UI presidential vacancy, recruiting candidates, screening them, coordinating interviews, and conducting background checks.

AGB Search also will help and advise “in the preparation and implementation of a transition plan for the new president, university administration, and campus community.”

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Harreld has vowed to stay on until a new president starts and acclimates to campus — negating the need for an interim leader.

The board also used AGB Search for its University of Northern Iowa presidential search in 2016 that landed Mark Nook and its Iowa State University presidential search in 2017 that identified internal candidate Wendy Wintersteen as the top candidate.

The board paid AGB a fixed fee of $110,000 for its help in the ISU search and an $85,000 fee for helping with the UNI search — not including expenses.

Before AGB, the board used Parker Executive Search for its three previous presidential searches in 2011 at Iowa State, 2012 at UNI, and then 2015 — when Harreld was hired. But Parker came under fire during the process that delivered Harreld, and the board has since gone in a different direction.

“The hiring of a university president is one of the most important roles of the Board of Regents,” Regents Executive Director Mark Braun said. “AGB has a great history of being able to assist in the hiring of outstanding university presidents. After discussions with the committee co-chairs, and review of all applications, we are confident that AGB will be able to provide great support in this important process.”

Seven search firms responded to the board’s request for proposals — most of which charged a fixed fee over $100,000.

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

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