By Iowa City Press-Citizen
The Iowa state Board of Regents is moving forward with its plan for the state’s three public universities to impose a tuition freeze next year for undergraduate Iowa residents — a plan that could reduce tuition by another $1,000 a year over the next two years.
The regents, however, are receiving some mixed support for the plan.
During last week’s meetings in Iowa City, student leaders from the University of Northern Iowa explained their concerns that the freeze would have a negative effect on their institution — in which, unlike at the University of Iowa and Iowa State University, in-state students make up the lion’s share of the student body.
And some UI graduate students complained that that undergraduate tuition freeze was being paid for, in part, by increasing tuition for graduate and out-of-state students.
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 increased 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.
Without the funding increase this year, the regents say, there won’t be a tuition freeze. (And hopefully that funding increase will give the regents most flexibility in how to deal with any shortfall at UNI.)
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.
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.
Although the regents should consider the effects of the proposal on UNI and on graduate students, we hope the proposals move forward.