IOWA CITY – Iowa higher education leaders endorsed plans Thursday to freeze tuition rates for undergraduates next school year in exchange for what they called a modest funding increase from the Legislature.
Presidents of the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa called for holding tuition at current rates during the 2013-2014 school year as long as lawmakers approve their request for a 2.6 percent funding increase. Leaders of the Iowa Board of Regents, which governs the universities, also expressed support for the plan, which they are expected to approve in December.
“Being in tune to student concerns, particularly the cost of higher education, is appreciated,” University of Iowa student body president Nic Pottebaum told the board during a meeting at the student union in Iowa City.
University officials say the freeze is possible because inflation in higher education is expected to be low and they are used to managing tight budgets. After cutting a combined $125 million in state funds in recent years, the universities received a $23 million funding increase this year—the first in years.
Regents leaders said they believe they’ll be successful in lobbying the Legislature for another increase if they explain it will be used to freeze tuition, a politically popular idea. The state budget is also in good shape, with a surplus that has Gov. Terry Branstad considering ways to cut taxes.
Board member Bruce Rastetter and board President Craig Lang warned that the regents could later approve a tuition hike if lawmakers do not support a funding increase. Rastetter, a top Branstad ally who has taken the lead on trying to improve the universities’ relationships with lawmakers, said the plan was part of “a continued development of a partnership with the state.”
The plan would keep base tuition at $6,678 at Iowa and $6,648 at Iowa State and Northern Iowa. It would raise tuition by less than 3 percent for out-of-state undergraduates, generating $9.3 million in new revenue. Graduate and professional students would also see increases that would bring in an extra $4.5 million.
Enrollment is up at Iowa and Iowa State in recent years, partly due to more aggressive out-of-state recruiting, which has also helped offset state funding cuts.
But Northern Iowa, which attracts fewer out-of-state students, has struggled financially and has eliminated dozens of majors and minors. For that reason, the school’s student leaders said Thursday they would not join their colleagues elsewhere in endorsing the freeze.
“We’d hate to see the agony caused by those cuts to be for nothing,” said student body president Jordan Bancroft-Smithe. “While we recognize that rising tuition costs are a threat to Iowa’s future, an even greater threat would be deterioration in quality at our higher education institutions.”
Jared Knight, student body president at Iowa State, praised the freeze but warned regents that graduate program tuition increases would be painful. He said those students “feel targeted” and that they are being left out because they have less political appeal.
Iowa State President Steven Leath said he believed the impact of those increases would be minimal because many graduate students receive tuition scholarships and will see bigger stipends next year.
Separately, the regents approved a five-year plan that would allow the universities to phase out a controversial policy of using at least 15 percent of tuition revenue to provide scholarships and grants to students. Critics say the policy unfairly requires some students to pay higher tuition to help others.
Instead, the plan asks lawmakers to create a $40 million financial aid program for low-income students, and for private foundations to raise more than $200 million to create endowments for merit scholarships. University leaders said the fundraising goals would be a challenge.
Rastetter said he would promise lawmakers that, for every financial aid dollar provided, tuition would be reduced by the same amount for in-state undergraduates the following year.
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