IOWA CITY — As Iowa lawmakers keep cutting funding for higher education and university administrators keep looking for ways to do more with less help from the Capitol, University of Iowa student leaders are taking it upon themselves to help peers pay off lingering debts that prevent them from graduating.
UI Student Government has been collaborating with campus partners this spring to fund a pilot program called the Hawkeye Completion Grant, aimed at helping students pay outstanding university bill balances at the end of the term.
Students who can’t do so can’t graduate or register for next year’s classes — meaning the new grant program could improve retention and graduation rates.
Student government is testing the program with about $80,000 raised so far. Student government has committed $30,000 toward the initiative, and has raised the rest through donations from the public and university, including contributions from colleges, student-support offices and the Office of the UI President. A crowdfunding campaign aimed at generating $5,000 by Sunday stood at more than $5,450 by Friday.
But, as the student leaders point out, funding for the program has to be sustainable over the long term and the university needs to make significant improvement in student financial aid.
“We understand that the UI and Board of Regents will raise tuition to respond to the cuts and maintain the quality of education,” according to a statement by student body President Jacob Simpson and Vice President Lilian Sanchez. “However, we expect the UI to demonstrate resolute leadership in the face of adversity, and as students, we deserve action from the UI that will ensure holistic student success.”
The student initiative comes as lawmakers roll out another round of midyear funding cuts for Iowa’s public universities and as the regents look to respond with tuition increases.
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Student leaders Friday denounced the Legislature’s decision to take back late in the budget year $11 million from the UI and Iowa State University. A day earlier, UI President Bruce Harreld sent a message to the campus criticizing the “generational disinvestment” of public higher education by the state.
Harreld’s message was signed by 24 administrators, faculty members, and graduate student leaders. But Simpson said no undergraduate student leaders signed the statement “because it did not reflect the promise for action that we wish for the UI to make.”
The student leaders demanded the university review and reform financial aid policies and practices to increase retention, improve graduation rates and decrease student debt. They asked for increasing financial literacy services and upping the number and amount of awards given to first-year students from historically underrepresented populations.
“Financial hardship — affording tuition, fees, housing, food, and books — is one of the primary reasons students do not graduate,” according to their statement.
Between fall 2016 and fall 2017, about 14 percent of first-year students across Iowa’s three public universities did not return for a second year, according to the most recent Board of Regents report. About 20 percent didn’t return for a third year in 2016, according to the most recent data.
The UI’s six-year graduation rate has been climbing, from 71.8 percent for the 2010 entering class to 73.5 percent for the class of 2011. Its four-year graduation rate likewise is up, reaching 54.4 percent for the entering class of 2013 from 52.7 percent the year before.
But, as Harreld has pointed out, those figures are below those of the UI’s peer institutions.
A UI survey in 2016, according to student government, revealed 52 percent of students worry about finances “often” and 24 percent were “very concerned” about funding their education. At UI in the 2015-16 school year, 55 percent of all graduating seniors left with debt.
One student who worries about debt is Javon Stovall, a political science major. He said he has held down as many as three jobs and taken on student debt. He said the new grant program would help.
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“I’ve taken out loans this year, just like I have every other year, and it’s still not enough to cover the costs of tuition,” he said. “This grant is necessary because it makes a dent in the cycle of student poverty.”
In April, according to Simpson, UI staff will assess student U-bills and reach out to those potentially eligible for a grant of up to $1,500. Although university bill amounts change all the time, 504 UI students on Dec. 1 had balances between $100 and $1,500 — 63 percent of whom were third- and fourth-year students.
According to Simpson, UI financial aid officials will send potentially eligible students application forms, and then review those that come back against additional criteria, including whether the students are making academic progress, have good non-academic standing and demonstrate financial need. And everyone who gets a grant must develop a financial plan.
ISU has launched a similar program, and the ISU Athletics Department announced Thursday it is committing $1 million toward it.
In a statement, ISU President Wendy Wintersteen said, “This commitment supports the university’s key goal of helping more students overcome financial hurdles that threaten their ability to graduate.”
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