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Rescinded surcharge helpful, but yearly tuition hikes must stop

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | FEBRUARY 05, 2010 7:30 AM

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For students, Thursday’s state Board of Regents meeting was a study in contrasts.

While regents voted 7-2 to raise tuition 6 percent, our misfortune was tempered by a vote minutes later. They passed a resolution to rescind the $100 spring surcharge in response to Gov. Chet Culver’s $31 million addition to higher-education appropriations. The surcharge revocation is subject to the Legislature’s approval of Culver’s budget proposal.

The tuition hike will not be a popular move. With another increase, the already-steep cost of higher education will rise again, making it even more difficult for struggling families and college students.

The regents must respond quickly and assertively to make concrete plans to lower the exorbitant costs of higher education in Iowa.

Nonetheless, the regents should be commended for their swift and bold action to rescind the surcharge. The unanimous vote showed strong solidarity with students, a characteristic that was severely lacking when the regents first approved the surcharge.

“I was one who strongly supported the surcharge, because I felt at the time it was all about sharing the burden,” Regent Robert Downer said. “Since conditions have improved, I think it is reasonable that these funds go back to the students.”

The rescinded surcharge may have softened the blow to students and families, but the 6 percent tuition increase does nothing to support Iowa families in this time of fiscal crisis.

In his comments before the vote, Regent Michael Gartner argued that it is easier for the “universities to pay the price than Iowa families.” Regent Ruth Harkin followed suit, asserting she would stand with Gartner on “the economy and the families of Iowa.”

We salute Harkin and Gartner for their courageous votes.

University officials have long contended that Iowa’s tuition increases are substantially lower compared with similar institutions around the nation. Regent President David Miles specifically cited Florida and California, with respective tuition spikes of 15 and 32 percent.

The comparison is specious, however. California is struggling with devastating budget problems, and Florida was hit especially hard by subprime mortgages. Unemployment continues to be a problem in both states, and their economies have stagnated.

And even if we were to laud ourselves when comparing Iowa with these two states, it’s a dubious honor. Tuition cost should not be dictated by the national average or a few states with onerous increases. State officials have apparently lost sight of the great strain that sharp annual tuition hikes have on students and their families. Our goal should be to provide a quality education at an affordable price, not a quality education that’s merely less exorbitantly priced than other states’ public institutions.

Still, it’s an obvious conundrum: How can we keep costs low while still providing the quality education students deserve?

Miles made his worries known, arguing that if the regents did not raise tuition by 6 percent, “we will harm the quality of the institutions, and we will find ourselves, a year from now, looking for something even more in terms of increases and making a difficult situation even worse.”

While he may be right, it provides negligible comfort to Iowans sending their kids to college. While the regents were effectively straitjacketed by the Legislature’s miserly funding, these increases cannot continue. State lawmakers must make it a priority to fully fund state institutions instead of relying on yearly tuition increases. In the coming years, it will become even harder for the regents to justify that the education Iowa students receive matches the level of debt they have are forced to endure years after graduation.

The rescinded surcharge was a small gift to students, but the major hurdle — the seemingly inexorable cost of higher education — remains. To solve that problem, legislators will have to take it upon themselves to right their errant funding course.


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