IOWA CITY — Graduate and professional students at Iowa’s public universities say tuition and fee increases in the past decade are squeezing them as well, but their situation doesn’t get as much attention as costs for undergraduate students.
Some graduate and professional student leaders are urging legislators and the state Board of Regents to take a closer look at how cost increases are affecting that student population and at the benefits those advanced-degree earners provide the state.
One concern is that continued increasing costs will decrease Iowans’ access to advanced degrees, said Michael Appel, a third-year law student at the University of Iowa.
“The amount of economic impact alone that our graduate and professional students and schools have is remarkable,” said Appel, president of the UI’s Executive Council of Graduate and Professional Students. “Because of that, I think, the state really needs to ask itself if it values graduate and professional education.”
In the past five years, tuition and fees for resident graduate students increased 25 percent for UI students, more than 21 percent for Iowa State University students and nearly 20 percent for University of Northern Iowa students. Costs vary by major, but the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences is used as the standard. Professional school costs also vary by program.
Several students spoke of their concerns about graduate student costs when the regents met last month in Iowa City and discussed next year’s tuition proposals. Iowa’s Board of Regents does not track average student debt for graduate and professional students at the three state universities like it does for undergraduates.
According to the non-profit College Board, among full-time graduate students in 2011-12, the national average total in student loans was $17,453 per graduate student, up from $15,951 in 2006-07.
UI graduate student Kate Kedley is concerned about substantial student loan debt when she graduates with her doctoral degree in language, literacy and culture. She’s passionate about her teaching profession, but the field doesn’t necessarily come with high financial reward.
“I want to continue to do research and teach, either at the secondary or college level, but the debt I will be paying back might limit the flexibility I have with finding a teaching job that will cover the student loan payments,” Kedley said via email.
A second-year doctoral student and mother of three, Kedley takes out more than $15,000 in student loans each year. She is paid a stipend for working as a teaching assistant in the College of Education and works as an adjunct at two community colleges but still struggles to cover school and family expenses.
Iowa regents President Craig Lang said the board tries to use expected higher education inflation as a gauge for graduate and undergraduate rate increases. In recent years, when the board set rates higher than the Higher Education Price Index for graduate tuition, it was because of state funding cuts, he said.
With graduate tuition rates, the board relies on recommendations of the colleges. In special cases, there are larger increases for certain things, like the proposed $3,000 tuition supplement for incoming dental students in the fall. That increase would pay for more instructors and support faculty salaries, Lang said.
For graduate rates, the board puts a lot of weight on remaining competitive with peers, he said.
The board’s goal for next year was “really to focus on what we could do to the undergraduate rate,” Lang said, which is why officials want to freeze in-state undergraduate tuition. It’s possible the board will want more in-depth study on future costs for graduate and professional students, Lang said. Making student fees more uniform and understandable is a concern, he said.
“We don’t want it to get out of line,” Lang said.
The bargaining union that represents UI teaching and research assistants has made getting fee scholarships a priority, similar to the tuition scholarships the student workers get in exchange for their labor. Fees are about $700 a semester for graduate students.
The UI offers full tuition scholarships at the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences rate to graduate teaching and research assistants with at least 25 percent appointments, Graduate College Dean John Keller said. This fall, the full-time scholarship is paid to nearly 2,500 students, about half of the graduate student population, he said. Those student employees also get a salary.
At ISU, about 75 percent of doctoral students are on graduate assistantships and get full-tuition scholarships, while about 35 percent of master’s students get half-tuition scholarships, said Graduate College Dean Dave Holger.
Onother issue for many professional students is that they can’t work, because of the time demands or requirements of their academic programs, said Jonathan Schultz, a second-year UI medical student.
Schultz, 30, grew up in Coralville and earned his undergraduate degree at ISU before a stint in the Peace Corps and a master’s degree in public health at Emory. He has interest in primary care and public health, but he worries that some students will be discouraged from pursuing primary care, especially in smaller Iowa communities, as rising student loan debt forces them to look at higher paying medical specialties.
Resident tuition and fees this year for UI medical students is just less than $33,000. Add books and supplies, room and board, and transportation, and the annual cost of attendance for resident students is about $53,000. That’s about $212,000 for four years.
“I think it’s going to be really challenging for Iowa to create as many primary care physicians, because their salaries are so much lower than the specialists,” Schultz said.