By Iowa City Press-Citizen
Under plans recently released by the Iowa state Board of Regents, the state’s three public universities would impose a tuition freeze next year for Iowa residents and could reduce tuition by another $1,000 a year over the next two years.
That’s good news.
The Regents say a tuition freeze is possible because of low inflation rates, healthy enrollments as well as cost-cutting measures and efficiencies the universities have put in place to balance the budget in recent years.
Freezing tuition — even for one year — would be quite an accomplishment. A Des Moines Register review found that tuition at the universities has increase every year since at least 1992. And this year, the universities raised tuition 3.75 percent for most in-state students — with out-of-state, graduate and professional students paying even more.
But there is a price to pay. The regents will be asking the Legislature for a 2.6 percent increase in state funds. (That figure rises to more than 3 percent — a total increase of $16 million — when a special $4 million request is included for UNI.)
Although that increase about matches the rate of inflation, no request for additional money is guaranteed. During the most recent legislative session, it was a major legislative battle for the regents — even with support from the Democratic Iowa Senate and the Republican governor — to persuade the Republican Iowa House of Representatives to restore some of the cuts in funding that the regents received during the previous years.
And without the funding increase this year, the regents say, there won’t be a tuition freeze.
The proposed $1,000 reduction is tied to the regents requesting $39.5 million to establish a new grant program for students with financial need. That money is needed to make up for the $150 million in scholarship money that was lost when the regents bowed to public pressure and ended a program in which nearly 20 percent of tuition money paid was set aside to be used for needs-based and merit-based scholarship.
The provision is an important part of the regents’ strategy for winning the Legislature’s approval for the grant. As proposed, the new state dollars don’t increase university revenue; they merely will replace existing money. (And it also will be important for the three university foundations to each pledge to raise at least $14 million a year in merit scholarships for Iowans.)
Lawmakers generally like the sound of a “tuition freeze.” They also like the sound of phrases such as “cost-cutting measures” and “efficiencies.” But legislative leaders aren’t yet ready to commit to the funding increase necessary to make it happen. (And, indeed, until the polls close on Nov. 6, no one really knows what next year’s General Assembly will look like.)
The board will seek public comments this month and vote on a final version of the plan next month.
We hope the proposals move forward. But the bad news is that the freeze wouldn’t affect fees or room and board.
That’s important because the mandatory fees at Iowa’s universities have increased at a quicker rate than tuition has. While tuition has increased an average of 53 percent over the past decade, the Register estimates mandatory fees have increased 73 percent and now add up to an average of $1,100 a year — on top of the average $6,500 in in-state tuition.
Even if all those fees are worthwhile expenses, the main problem is still that there currently is no specific way for parents to estimate how much in fees will be owed. That’s why we’re glad the regents also are discussing whether to implement a simplified fee structure to make costs more transparent and easier to understand.
The move will not decrease the amount of fees paid, but it will eliminate the surprise and sticker shock that comes when the bills arrive.
That will make it easier for Iowa families — and lawmakers — to see whether the regents are trying to use fees as a back door way to raise tuition.