Student leaders at Iowa’s public universities are disappointed and anxious about potential tuition increase

By: - May 29, 2021 10:00 am

The Old Capitol building at the University of Iowa. (Photo by University of Iowa)

Students at Iowa’s public universities are preparing for tuition increases as they shoulder the cost of the Iowa Legislature’s decision to not increase higher education funding this fiscal year.

Citing millions in COVID-19 relief funding and declining enrollment in four-year institutions in the state and country, Iowa Republicans kept funding levels for fiscal year 2022 the same in its $1 billion education budget. Legislators, however, did not freeze tuition.

University of Iowa senior and Undergraduate Student President Regan Smock spoke with legislators two years ago and was asked if she would stay in the state after graduation. Looking forward, she said she doesn’t know if she wants to live in a state that doesn’t fund higher education.

“As someone who grew up in Iowa and wants to maybe have children who I want to go to college, I want to live somewhere where they value education,” she said. “The lack of funding definitely communicates that it’s not an important part of our state. I hope one day people will be able to see [education] is a really important part of what makes our state, our state.” 

Members of all three public universities’ student governments visit the Capitol to advocate for causes important to the students they serve annually. Smock said tuition and state funding has been a priority for University of Iowa students for as long as she can remember. 

Board of Regents delays tuition discussion

The state Board of Regents froze tuition during the 2020-21 academic year, pausing its five-year tuition plan, which calls for a 3% increase to in-state undergraduate tuition annually. It requested a nearly $30 million increase in state aid for fiscal year 2022 in September which would’ve brought the regents’ budget to $642.9 million. 

Because of the Legislature’s decision, the Board of Regents is delaying consideration of proposed tuition and fee rates for the next academic year until after its June meeting, Josh Lehman, board spokesman, said in an email to Iowa Capital Dispatch.

“We will likely call a special meeting of the Board later in June to have the first reading of tuition, with a final vote on rates in July,” he said. “We will hold a special meeting in June … so families and the universities know what the Board is considering and have as much time as possible to plan.” 

The delay is making students like Abigail Kraft anxious about what to expect for the future of their education. Kraft, the chair of the Northern Iowa Student Government’s government and legislative affairs committee, is beginning her track to a master’s degree in English education this fall. 

She said the uncertainty of tuition three months before she starts classes as a part-time student is stressful. 

“It’s a little troublesome because the formal numbers haven’t been set yet, so I don’t know what to expect, especially with COVID,” she said. “COVID makes the lack of funding’s impacts stronger with students who are unemployed because of it.”

Kraft said some of her peers have mentioned they might take the year off depending on what the tuition increase is at the University of Northern Iowa, which was excluded from the five-year model to remain competitive.

Regan Smock is a senior at the University of Iowa where she is the president of the Undergraduate Student Government. (Photo courtesy of Regan Smock)

Smock said she was disappointed in the Legislature’s funding decisions regarding public universities. After years of students going to the Statehouse to advocate for state funding, she’s concerned the trend of states to use tuition to make ends meet at universities allows higher education to become inaccessible.

“Less people are going to college right now, especially when you have to pay and don’t have any college experiences and are taking classes online during COVID-19,” she said. “The University of Iowa has less tuition right now and less state funding. The inequality that they’re creating by making it so inaccessible to go to college should be realized.”

In recent years there has been a substantial shift when it comes to financing higher education. According to the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association’s latest State Higher Education Finance report, net tuition revenue shares more than half the responsibility of funding public universities nationally. The report also found a 0.2%t increase in enrollment at four-year public colleges in 2020.

Student financial aid received more state money

Finances are known to be one of the biggest deterrents for students continuing their education, Elizabeth Keest Sedrel of Iowa College Aid said. While no additional funds were allocated to fund higher education, funding for state financial aid increased this legislative session.

“There was an increase of more than 13 percent in state funding for financial aid programs,” Sedrel said. “And most of that went to the Future Ready Iowa Last-Dollar scholarship, and the funding for it increased by $10 million over last year.” 

Iowa College Aid estimated in 2019 the average debt on graduation at Iowa’s regents’ institutions was $27,502 and 55% of students graduate with some debt. 

COVID-19 aid from the federal government to Iowa’s three public universities is estimated to total $114.9 million from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund in March and December 2020. Of that total, more than $46 million went directly to students. 

University of Iowa graduate student, teaching assistant, and Campaign to Organize Graduate Students President Hadley Galbraith said she was surprised by the state’s disinvestment in higher education in the middle of the pandemic.

“COVID relief funding is limited in how it can be applied and the situation that universities are in right now, recovering from COVID, shows that we need more support, not less,” she said. “To bring everyone back to in-person learning safely, we need funding.” 

Julia Campbell (left) and Megan Decker (right) are seniors at Iowa State University. They are the president and vice president of the university’s student government. (Photo courtesy of Julia Campbell)

Iowa State University Student Government President and Vice President Julia Campbell and Megan Decker are focusing on how they can assist students as tuition increases. Campbell said she is hoping to remind state legislators in the future of the value of Iowa’s public universities.

“We need to help our state legislators recognize the value of having people come to school in the state of Iowa,” she said. “Whether that’s in-state students or out-of-state and international students, there is value in having a culture of diversity on campus.”

Out-of-state students make up a large percent of Iowa State University’s student body, Decker said, and it’s because of the affordability of tuition.

“We are proud at Iowa State to have such an affordable education compared to other Midwest institutions,” she said. “We’re about 20 to 80 percent less expensive than some of the peer universities around and continuing to be an affordable place is a priority.”

Campbell and Decker are both in-state students. The two said they are focusing on advertising scholarships and aid opportunities to students to ensure they know their options to prepare for an increase in tuition during the pandemic.

Smock isn’t alone in questioning the value Iowa places on public education. Galbraith, who’s originally from Kansas, said this approach sends a negative message to young Iowans who want to continue their education in the state at a more affordable, public university.

“Affordability is decreasing and I think it shows education becoming less valued,” she said. “With being an increasingly significant problem because of the downward trend of state funding, it limits students after they’ve graduated which makes students reconsider getting a four-year degree.” 

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Eleanor Hildebrandt
Eleanor Hildebrandt

Eleanor Hildebrandt is a senior at the University of Iowa majoring in journalism and mass communication and global health studies, with a minor in German. She is a managing editor at the university newspaper, the Daily Iowan, and has served as an reporter intern at Iowa Capital Dispatch.