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Pandemic, expected spending requests put question mark over higher education funding
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Pandemic, expected spending requests put question mark over higher education funding

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Iowa lawmakers for years have refused to fund the Board of Regents’ full appropriations requests — at times delivering debilitating cuts instead — even as the public universities raise tuition and slash programs that administrators say can be saved only with more legislative support or even more rate increases.

Given the pandemic and lawmakers expecting “more spending requests than ever,” this legislative session isn’t primed to deviate from that trend — even with campus leaders arguing it should.

University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld, for one, recently noted the state budget has grown $3.4 billion since 1998 while legislative support for his campus dropped $8 million.

“That $8 million decrease over this time period, compounded by a 62 percent increase in the (Consumer Price Index) says that, in real dollars, we’ve had a $446 million reduction,” he told the Iowa Board of Regents in November. “Said another way, we wonder why we’re having the need for an increase in tuition? Or why we’re not being able to increase salaries, or actually support excellent programs sufficiently?”

Like last year and the year before, the regent’s request to lawmakers includes an $18 million general education increase. Tacked on to this year’s request for fiscal 2022 is restoration of a midyear $8 million cut delivered over the summer in the throes of COVID-19 losses.

If approved, the regents’ state appropriations for the UI, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa would swell to $642.9 million — or $29.3 million more than its $613.6 million allocation in the current budget.

Harreld, in recent discussions with regents over campus resources, aired skepticism of reversing the legislative funding losses and reiterated his support for resuming annual tuition increases — after the board froze rates this academic year given COVID-19 concerns and economic hardships facing students.

“I think we’ve actually had to really stare at the reality of this,” Harreld said of the universities’ seesaw shift toward heavier reliance on tuition than appropriations. “At this point, this may be reality, and the sooner that we deal with it, the better off we are.”

Regent leaders recently recommitted to a five-year tuition plan promising increases at the UI and ISU that vary according to the level of state support. The smaller UNI, which competes with a different set of schools for students, is not part of the step plan.

‘Some frustration’

While recently discussing state budgeting with reporters, Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley, R-New Hartford, said he expects lawmakers to get “more requests than ever” this session and budget in a way that lets Iowa fulfill its commitments should economic recovery wane.

He also aired consternation over how the public universities have handled courses during the pandemic — including decisions to move so much instruction online.

“I’ve talked to a lot of parents who are paying the tuition for their child, or the child having to take out loans, who aren’t even given the opportunity to get the education that they expected from one of the regent schools,” Grassley said.

Referencing regent requests for more money, Grassley said, “That reflects somewhat poorly when, as legislators, we hear from students and parents that they want their student in-person and they’re not even being given that as an option. So there is some frustration that exists heading into this legislative session when it comes to giving the choice to the students and the parents.”

When asked about enrollment losses — shrinking tuition revenue and propelling state funding needs — Grassley suggested the universities hold some blame in driving away students.

“They’re paying all of that tuition, yet they’re not allowed to go to school in person,” he said. “If that’s the route that the regents would like to go down, I’m sure there are a lot of other options that are a lot cheaper. I don’t know why all of our conversations forget about the parents and the students. I’m very frustrated by that.”

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Iowa College Aid recently surveyed Free Application for Federal Student Aid filers in Iowa about financial factors involved in fall 2020 enrollment and found 82 percent of the nearly 10,000 respondents said “at least one issue related to COVID-19 affected their ability to pay for college.”

Among respondents who didn’t enroll, the most-cited financial issue was temporary job loss, according to Iowa College Aid spokeswoman Elizabeth Keest Sedrel.

“Among all FAFSA filers, the most-cited difficulty in paying for college was increasing costs, followed by temporary job loss,” she said.

Help from Harreld?

Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, said the push for more state resources has been missing a key ally — Harreld himself.

Since being hired by the regents as UI president in 2015, Harreld has been “completely ineffective” in advocating for resources the UI desperately needs, he said.

Although Harreld has repeatedly made public appeals and presentations arguing for stronger support, Bolkcom said he has not met with state and local leaders.

“He’s just a no-show,” Bolkcom said. “He doesn’t really lobby for resources, so he’s not actually probably going to be involved in any of the work that leads up to getting a better appropriation.”

Harreld, who in October announced plans to retire after the board hires a replacement, has not met with the Johnson County legislative delegation in nearly three years, Bolkcom said.

In response to the criticism, UI spokeswoman Jeneane Beck said the campus boasts a “robust legislative advocacy program that includes statehouse visits and handwritten postcards from students, faculty and staff, a university-wide day at the Capitol known as Hawkeye Caucus Day, and tours of campus known as Legislators in the Lab.”

“The university provides senators and representatives information about the university’s impact on their local districts, answers frequent questions, and in coordination with the Board of Regents provides feedback on legislation that impacts the university,” Beck said. “President Harreld is a part of this process and engages as needed with legislators on key issues.”

Despite his critique, Bolkcom said he supports fully funding the regents’ request.

Should lawmakers grant the full $18 million higher education funding bump — something that hasn’t happened since 2014 — the universities would use it for student financial aid, updating online and hybrid two-way teaching capabilities, and making more online classes and programs possible, according to the board’s legislative request.

“Iowa has no financial aid funding designated solely for students attending Iowa’s public universities,” according to the request, noting the state gives 78% of its need-based aid to students at private colleges, 15% to those at community colleges and 6% to public university students.

“Iowa is last among all states in the percent of need-based aid provided to students attending public colleges and universities,” according to the request, which advocated the need for distance learning upgrades.

Sen. Zach Wahls, D-Coralville, said Democrats want in-person learning, too, but they “also understand that we live in a world where facts are real and science matters.”

About the regents’ funding request, Wahls suggested a lot will depend on federal support at the state and local level. But he backed the need for it.

“It’s a well-documented thing that when the economy kind of goes in the wrong direction, more people go back to school, either for a bachelor’s or an associate degree,” he said. “It should make sense that we should be increasing funding and helping grow access.”

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