To fight student debt, cap tuition at entrance levels


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Nobody likes tuition increases.

Students are a given, but the state Board of Regents seems to find them troubling, too. After approving a 5 percent hike Wednesday, Regent President David Miles told The Daily Iowan it was a “difficult decision.”

The regents contend this “difficult decision” was prompted, as usual, by a decrease in state appropriations; indeed, state funding and tuition have a nearly perfect negative correlation.

But there is no sign that the downward plunge in funding will slow, and an interminable rise in tuition is unsustainable. Regardless of lobbying efforts, it’s time for the regents to brainstorm new ways of saving students’ economic well-being. One possibility that should be seriously reconsidered: Cap tuition and fees for each student according to the year in which they enter (with room for inflation).

To be sure, a guaranteed tuition rate would not decrease tuition. But locking students into a set payment would allow them (and their families) to budget more effectively, hopefully reducing both financial strain and finacially motivated withdrawal.

Iowa would not be alone in adopting such a measure; the University of Illinois has a similar system in place. Yes, the tuition is higher at our eastern neighbor’s state school, but that tuition rate is guaranteed and set for those students all four years of their university careers, unless they switch colleges.

“The base tuition at the University of Illinois is $10,386. The rate ranges from $10,386 to $15,114, depending on which college you enter, but the rate you are given as a freshman is set for all four years,” an admissions counselor from the University of Illinois told the DI Editorial Board.

Iowa’s regents do not view a guaranteed tuition rate as a viable option.

“Last summer, we brought in a speaker who discussed a University of Illinois tuition-type plan,” Miles told the Editorial Board. “We elected not to pursue that option.”

Miles’ stance on such a plan is that in the first year that the plan is established, tuition would have to drastically increase to compensate for a four-year freeze. The regents wanted a plan that would allow for flexibility.

“We didn’t want to have a significant increase in tuition, and we wanted flexibility in a plan both for the colleges and the state,” Miles said.

But in allowing for flexibility, the regents make the cost of college uncertain. Flexibility is lost for students and parents who go to great lengths, such as obtaining a second job or dropping out for a semester as they struggle to keep up with increasing costs. Accounting for inflation, an in-state senior on the four-year plan has seen tuition and fees increase by 17.8 percent in her or his time at Iowa (and paid a total of $1,906 more); a similar out-of-state student has seen her or his fees go up by 21.8 percent.

The tuition increases are also occurring later in the year, giving students less time to prepare. Two years ago, the tuition decision occurred in January; last year’s vote took place in February. This year, it happened Wednesday — in late March. Miles averred that funding sources from both the state and federal levels have become less certain over the years, necessitating a later vote. While there’s only so much the regents can do to pressure lawmakers, the late vote is punishing students, especially freshmen.

Prospective freshmen need to give the UI admissions answers by May 1 in order to keep their file active. Later tuition decisions give prospective, financially concerned students less and less time to make a decision. They also harm students who have decided on Iowa, only to find out later that tuition will be 5 to 10 percent higher than they had expected. A guaranteed tuition rate would give freshmen hard numbers, allowing them to plan their futures.

Right now, that’s particularly important. 2008 Iowa university graduates have the second-highest amount of student-loan debt in the country, according to a study released last year. Student debt has increased across the country; high unemployment rates are predicted to lessen the number of students who pay back their loans on time (a meager 37 percent at present).

It’s a dismal picture: Students enter one of the worst economies in the past century burdened by loans — loans taken in part to account for tuition increases they could not foresee. While the Editorial Board would like to see long-term solutions to the creeping tuition increases (and an end to Gov. Terry Branstad’s higher-education massacre), there are measures the regents could take to insulate students from debt.

A possible tuition freeze, for one.

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