Gathered in the Slife Ballroom at the University of Northern Iowa on Wednesday, students from various colleges across the state rallied for free tuition and an end to white supremacy on campus without consequence, requesting a town hall with the state Board of Regents.
Iowa Student Action, allied with the Racial and Ethnic Coalition at UNI, opened up public comment at the regents’ second meeting of the academic year. The pair demanded that the regents schedule town halls at each of their state institutions to discuss an end to the multiyear tuition model and racial bias.
“We’re here because we’re sick and tired of going to universities that don’t seem to [care] about their students,” said Iowa State University student Chris Simmons in his address to the Board.
Tuition hikes and the regents’ multiyear tuition model are no more than a plan to make it harder for people to get into college, Simmons said. Increasing tuition juxtaposed with decreasing state funding has fostered universities where only the rich and white can attend, he said.
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“The students that do get in are being left to die on our campuses. And we aren’t going to stand for that,” Simmons said. “And that’s why we’re here. The fight against tuition hikes and the fight against white supremacy is the same fight.”
Instead of further increased tuition, the state needs free college for all and make sure that no more students are left behind, Simmons said.
As previously reported by The Daily Iowan, students at ISU and the University of Iowa can likely expect an increase of tuition by 3 percent each year for five years, according to the multiyear tuition model approved by the regents in fall 2018.
The new model allows for the regents to first read tuition rates in April and vote to finalize them in June, which will prevent a reset of the rates following the spring legislative session of the state Legislature and the determination of appropriations, said UI President Bruce Harreld in November 2018.
“The Board has attempted to keep tuition rates as predictable and as affordable as possible,” said regents President Mike Richards at the regents’ Thursday meeting. “Our resident undergraduate tuition rates are the lowest or nearly the lowest in each of the university’s peer groups.”
The multiyear model provides stability for future tuition increases, Richards said. Just like in previous years, he added, it is the Board’s priority to keep regent universities accessible and affordable.
“We want every qualified Iowan who wishes to attend one of our schools to be able to do so,” Richards said. “By keeping up our approach and with sustained support from the state, we believe we are achieving that goal.”
Denise Cheeseman, lead organizer for Iowa Student Action and UI graduate, said the group’s platform focuses on free college for all — including formerly incarcerated and undocumented students — and also a full cancellation of student debt at the federal level.
Sixty students from six different campuses joined together to present to the regents on Wednesday and push for a reversal of the multiyear tuition model, Cheeseman estimated.
Specific demands include that the regents schedule town halls at all three institutions before their April meeting and the discussion of tuition rates for the next academic year, Cheeseman said. The town halls are meant to open up conversation on racial and ethnic oppression, and how rising tuition prices out students of color, she added.
“The demand of the town halls really is that we feel again and again and again that administration and the Board of Regents like to pay a lot of lip service,” Cheeseman said. “We don’t actually feel like we’re seriously being heard.”
If the regents refuse to meet with students and “do their jobs,” she said, then Iowa Student Action will interrupt future Board meetings and prevent them from doing so even further.
UI junior and Iowa Student Action member Dulce Escorcia said everyone involved with the public comment presentation on Wednesday went for different and personal reasons but came together to hold the regents accountable for tuition hikes, as well as rampant racism she said has been circulating at the three regents’ universities.
RELATED: Iowa university students ask regents to reconsider multiyear tuition model
As a student of color, Escorcia said she feels affected by recent racist incidents at UNI. That plus her desire for a tuition freeze inspired her to participate in Wednesday’s protest.
Escorcia added that she’s confident Iowa Student Action will follow through on its promise to shut down regents’ meetings if the Board doesn’t speak to them. Although she hopes they’ll schedule town halls, Escorcia said, the regents don’t have a good history of interacting with students.
“I really hope that they will be willing to listen to us, the students, because we matter,” Escorcia said.
Although the regents did not respond to Iowa Student Action during their protest, Richards said on Thursday that he thought participants were very reasonable and he respected their request. However, he added that the Board doesn’t call public forums — that’s up to the universities and their student governments.
He stressed that the regents met with student government leaders prior to their Thursday meeting and discussed their policy to increase diversity over the last 10 years. Diversity is up 50 percent, he said, and there are many policies in place to promote inclusiveness.
“We are concerned when we hear these things, and we like to work to try to help everybody have a better experience, because we really are focused on the students,” Richards said. “We have about 20 percent first generation students, and we’re very proud of that, and we want to make their experience just as successful as it is for other people.”