DES MOINES — Representatives from Iowa’s regent universities, which are asking lawmakers for $18 million for student financial aid, told lawmakers Tuesday they are making efforts to graduate more students in four years — or less — as one way to address concerns about student debt.
“Our core mission is to maintain the quality of education and our public universities and to keep them affordable and accessible for every Iowa student who wants to attend,” Michael Richards, president of the Iowa Board of Regents, told the Education Appropriations Subcommittee on Tuesday.
To a large degree, he said, that will be contingent on lawmakers funding Gov. Kim Reynolds’ request for $7 million for student financial aid at University of Iowa and Iowa State University and $4 million at the University of Northern Iowa.
“We’re hopeful,” he said after the presentation by the university presidents. “We’ve spent a lot of time talking to the governor’s office and in preliminary discussions with legislators.”
In terms of tuition, the appropriation would mean no increase for UNI next year, Richards said, and a 3 percent increase at ISU and UI. If the regents don’t get the $18 million, tuition could increase as much as 5 percent.
Tuition and the financial aid provided by the state are not the only factors in helping students avoid debt.
Average student debt at UI, for example, is $14,680, President Bruce Harreld said, and 45 percent of students graduate with no debt. However, average student debt for students with debt is $27,715.
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The universities have set goals of helping students graduate in four years, which at the UI has resulted in a reduction more than $1,200 in average student debt since 2014, Harreld said.
ISU President Wendy Wintersteen said average student debt has been reduced by more than $2,200 since 2013, and the percent of ISU students borrowing money — 59 percent — is a historic low.
A key to keeping student on a four-year graduation track, as well as increasing grade-point averages and placement rates, is what happens outside the classroom, the presidents said.
Nearly two-thirds of graduating seniors report being involved in two or more internships, research projects, service-learning opportunities or campus clubs, Harreld said. The UI goal is for 60 percent of graduates to be involved in at least three high-impact, out-of-classroom experiences.
As an instructor, Harreld said, “If I can engage my students in work activities outside the classroom that relate to what I’m teaching, they’re thinking about what I’m teaching and practicing it a lot more.
“It’s not just theory. It’s real-world connections,” he said. “So they find it more purposeful, more relevant, their enthusiasm goes up. We’re learning the more we do that, their GPAs go up, they graduate on time.”
In addition, UNI President Mark Nook said, the outside activities “are opportunities for students to get engaged in what their professional life will be and what their community life will be.”
Those activities also are important in retaining university graduates, Nook said. At UNI, 90 percent of students are from Iowa and 85 percent of them take their first job in Iowa. Half of the out-of-state students take their first job here.
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“It gives those students an opportunity to learn what it’s like to really live in Iowa whether they grew up here or not … to see the quality of life, what the people are like and help them make a good decision about whether it is right for them,” Nook said.
He also said that about 5 percent of UNI students graduate in less than four years.
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