While tuition prices climb, lawmakers ponder solutions

Could a tuition cap be the solution lawmakers are looking for?
University of Iowa professor Michael Flatté speaks during a Board of Regents meeting in Cedar Falls, Iowa on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023. Flatté spoke against the proposal to move the computer science department into the Iowa advanced technology labs.
University of Iowa professor Michael Flatté speaks during a Board of Regents meeting in Cedar Falls, Iowa on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023. Flatté spoke against the proposal to move the computer science department into the Iowa advanced technology labs.
Cody Blissett

Avery Dettbarn knew she wanted to be a lawyer since she was 10 years old. After watching the popular TV series “Law & Order” with her mother in her rural northeastern hometown of Strawberry Point, Iowa.

The high cost of college made Dettbarn’s journey much harder.

When Dettbarn applied to colleges during her senior year of high school, she wanted to kickstart her legal career as a Hawkeye. The combination of in-state tuition and proximity to Strawberry Point — just 83 miles away from the town of just over 1,000 people — made the University of Iowa her first choice.

After being accepted and receiving her financial aid award letter, Dettbarn — now a second-year student studying political science — knew she would still have to cover several thousands of dollars in tuition with private student loans. Despite applying for dozens of loans using her mother, father, grandparents, and her uncle as cosigners, no one in her family had a high enough credit score to qualify for a private student loan.

Distraught, Dettbarn said she didn’t know what to do. Having never considered that she couldn’t afford college, Dettbarn asked her high school guidance counselor for advice.

“There was no advice,” Dettbarn said. “It was just, ‘Then you can’t go to college,’ which was hard to hear because I wanted to go to college. I wanted to be a lawyer.”

Ultimately, a distant relative was able to loan Dettbarn the money to cover the gap left over after financial aid for her first year of college, which Dettbarn is still paying back.

The next year, Dettbarn said she was able to get enough scholarships to cover her tuition and fees, but the cost of college still weighs on her. She plans to graduate a year early to save on the cost of tuition.

“… If I don’t get a scholarship, I probably wouldn’t be able to go another year,” Dettbarn said.

Dettbarn is one of thousands of students at Iowa’s three public universities and across the country grappling with the rising cost of college.

The average cost of tuition for all undergraduate resident students at Iowa’s public universities has risen 263 percent since 1998, pushing the yearly advertised price to an average of $10,396, according to an analysis of tuition rates by The Daily Iowan. More of the regents’ budget derives from tuition than from state appropriations.

Now, on average, in-state undergraduate students can expect to pay over $10,000 tuition. For out-of-state students, the burden is even higher at $26,735 per year. On average, the majority of Iowa undergraduates are saddled with $25,800 in total debt upon graduation, according to the 2022-23 regents financial aid report.

While state funding has shrunk in recent decades, regent university leaders have said they need to hike tuition to maintain educational quality at their institutions. As a result, the burden of paying for college at public universities in Iowa has fallen mostly on families and students.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are looking to solve out-of-control tuition costs and provide relief to Iowa students, but they differ on the methods.

This legislative session, Iowa House Republicans and Democrats introduced rival bills aimed at tackling the cost of college: House File 2558 and House File 2352.

Both bills were killed by legislative deadlines that prevent them from being revived without tactics that legislative leadership can use to resurrect any bills they want to see considered.

One theme rang true in both proposals: A tuition cap may be the answer to Iowa’s rising tuition rates. However, Democrats worry that without an increase in funding to Iowa’s three public universities, it could cause the universities to cut programs. Republicans suggest administrative bloat is to blame for soaring costs.

Increasing state appropriations is part of the solution, experts say

State funding to Iowa’s regent universities has remained relatively stagnant, only increasing by $10 million since 1998 as appropriations to the UI and Iowa State University have fallen in the same period.

Inflation has also caused the cost of providing services to rise as well, resulting in state funding making up increasingly smaller portions of universities’ overall budgets.

The percentage of university budgets paid for with student tuition revenue has dramatically increased since the 2008 financial crisis. State appropriations comprised 50 percent of regent university revenues in fiscal 2008 and only accounted for 30 percent of revenues in fiscal 2023, the budget year ending on June 30, 2023.

The last year state appropriations made up a majority of regent university revenue was fiscal 2009 when state funding made up 48.3 percent of the universities’ budgets, according to a 2023 regents report.

Democrats largely support increases in state appropriations to regent universities to help combat the high cost of college.

“What that means for students — if you think about costs going up, state appropriations going down — the burden of paying for college and educating our workforce has really shifted from one that’s taken on by the state government, to one that has been shifted on to Iowa families,” Rep. Adam Zabner, D-Iowa City, said. Zabner introduced House Democrats’ bill to freeze tuition.

While Democrats support large boosts in funding, Republicans have been wary of approving appropriations increases while they focus on reducing funding for DEI programs and administrative costs.

Increasingly, the GOP has favored investing in workforce programs to provide Iowans with job training beyond high school without having to pursue higher education.

“We are interested in looking at every aspect of taxpayer dollars being spent at our regent universities. Everything: what they spend on programs, DEI, and other administrative costs,” Rep. Carter Nordman, R-Adel, said during a February budget subcommittee meeting on higher education funding. “We are interested not only in how much we appropriate but how those appropriated dollars are being spent at our regents.”

Nordman chairs the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee that crafts higher education budgets. He declined multiple requests for comment from the DI before publication.

Rep. Taylor Collins, R-Mediapolis said during a floor debate that administrative “bloat” has cost the state millions and pointed to four full-time employees employed by regent universities to lead DEI initiatives at their respective institutions. Collins said these DEI executives collectively cost regent universities $750,000 a year in salary and benefits.

“It is very frustrating when I have to tell my constituents that that is going on,” Collins said during a floor debate on Feb. 29. “The reason for this proposal is that Americans, and ultimately Iowans, are losing trust in our higher education system.”

Collins did not respond to requests for comment from the DI after over 10 attempts by phone and email over two weeks.

He acknowledged that a report presented to lawmakers at a House Education Appropriations subcommittee meeting before floor debate showed Iowa’s universities are among the lowest in the country for administrative costs. According to the Cedar Rapids Gazette, the report showed administrative costs account for 5.8 percent of “core” expenses.

Declining state appropriations for regent universities has been the trend nationwide, according to a 2021 report by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. The report states state funding is generally linked to recessions, where states take stock of spending priorities and often have to massively cut budgets.

Dustin Weeden, associate vice president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, said states often rely on public universities to raise tuition to account for the lost revenue from dwindling state appropriations.

“Most institutions nationwide have shifted to relying more on students to pay than they were 20 to 40 years ago,” Weeden said. “Following the Great Recession, half of the states, at one point, the majority of their revenue came from tuition, and we have since seen a lot of states reinvest.”

The state of Washington cut tuition at its public colleges by 20 to 30 percent in 2015 — the same time the Iowa regents froze tuition at the three public universities — and Washington lawmakers backfilled the tuition reduction with state tax dollars.

However, studies show that dwindling state funding for higher education isn’t the only contributing factor to rising tuition costs. The number of enrolled students, inflation, and state appropriations all contribute.

Could a tuition cap slow the cost of college?

While experts agree there is no singular solution to the rising cost of college, some say that limiting tuition increases could be a key part of the solution. However, others say it is a temporary solution to a complex problem and could hurt universities’ fiscal outlook if not done right.

House Republicans’ proposal, among other things, would have capped tuition increases by the regents, who govern Iowa’s three public universities, at 3 percent year over year.

The bill didn’t include an explicit increase to funding for the state’s public universities, which Democrats said was “reckless” because it could result in the loss of services or quality at regent universities. Democrats’ proposal would have given state appropriations to fund any lost revenue from the tuition freeze they proposed.

Zabner, who represents western Iowa City including the area surrounding the UI campus, told the DI the Republicans’ proposal would put regent universities in fiscal precarity. Zabner said Iowa needs to ensure legislation addressing the cost of college doesn’t affect services and rather makes college more affordable.

“What we’re seeing in Iowa with the rising cost of tuition is students who have that aspiration to go to college, have done everything right, and the cost is getting in the way, and they are not able to pursue those dreams of going to college,” Zabner said. “Or if they do, they’re faced with huge loads of debt.”

Collins said the cost of diversity, equity, and inclusion programs and services has led regent universities away from their focus on providing high-quality education.

The bill would have put 10 directives on DEI programs into law that require regent universities to eliminate any DEI programs not required for accreditation or by federal and state law. The regents signed off on the directives in November.

Collins also said the bill pairs down the DEI programs and the costs associated with them. However, the bill directs all required DEI programs to be available for all students, which a nonpartisan analysis of the bill by the Legislative Services Agency says could come with a steep increase in costs.

“This bill stops the pursuit of these distractions and ideological agendas. It reorients the focus of our higher education system back to the pursuit of academic excellence, which should have been the point from the start; controls the ever-rising costs of higher education; and gives this body increased oversight over the regent enterprise,” Collins said during floor debate on Feb. 29.

Other Republicans who cosponsored House Republicans’ bill to cap tuition including Reps. Skyler Wheeler of Hull; Bobby Kaufmann of Wilton; Dan Gehlbach of Urbandale; Craig Johnson of Independence; Henry Stone of Forest City; and Steven Holt of Denison could not be reached by phone for comment on March 29.

Iowa is not the only state that has considered capping tuition increases or freezing tuition. A 2020 report by the Education Commission of the States found that 11 states have capped or frozen tuition at their four-year universities.

While Iowa lawmakers have not previously enacted a tuition cap, all three regent universities did freeze resident undergraduate tuition between the 2012-13 and 2014-15 academic years. Following the two-year tuition freeze, regents increased tuition by $300 for resident undergraduates after state lawmakers undercut regents’ general fund request by $14 million.

The only other time in recent history the regents froze tuition was in the 2020-21 school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bob Shireman, a higher education policy expert with the progressive think tank The Century Foundation, said states that have tried to artificially keep tuition low by capping it without backfilling state appropriations to fill the gap have had “negative unintended consequences.”

“It ends up being a lot more costly for students,” Shireman said, referring to indefinite caps on tuition increases, like the one proposed by the Iowa House Republicans. “It’s too simplistic an approach with a lot of unintended consequences that can hurt students and communities by undermining the quality education that schools are trying to provide.”

What’s next for higher education appropriations?

While lawmakers will continue to debate solutions to the cost of college in the state as the session comes to a close, lawmakers must focus on crafting the state’s $8.6 billion budget over the coming weeks. That  process includes deciding on state funds for Iowa’s three public universities.

Republicans have undercut the regents’ funding requests for years. In this year’s proposed budget, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds has recommended $27 million less for higher education funding than the $609 million regents asked for to support the universities’ general funds.

With both House and Senate Republicans announcing their state budget targets on March 28, the chambers will begin negotiations in the coming weeks.

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