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Tuition freeze progress, but not enough

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | DECEMBER 06, 2012 6:30 AM

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The state Board of Regents voted unanimously on Wednesday to freeze tuition for some students at Iowa’s three public universities — undergraduates paying the in-state rate will not see their tuitions rise next year. For nonresident undergraduates and graduate students, next year’s tuition will increase by approximately 2.6 percent.

The Daily Iowan Editorial Board supports the regents’ action because any measure that curbs the rising cost of higher education to any degree deserves commendation. But it is clear that tuition freezes are not a viable long-term answer to rising education costs, as evinced by the budgetary tradeoffs that will be necessary to ultimately pay for the freeze.

The approval of the tuition freeze follows an October decision to end a program that sets aside 15 percent of students’ tuition revenue to subsidize tuition for low-income Iowans every year. In order to maintain the state’s capacity to help low-income undergraduates, the regents’ plan requires the fundraising foundations of Iowa’s public universities to make up $200 million of the shortfall and asks the Iowa Legislature for nearly $40 million in additional state funds to maintain the aid program.

At this point, it is unclear whether the Legislature will grant the additional funds to maintain the aid program. Some, such as Sen. Mark Chelgren, R-Ottumwa, oppose a state subsidy for public-university tuition on the grounds that the money could be better spent elsewhere.

The Editorial Board believes the Legislature should fully fund its suggested share of the new aid program, given that dramatic cuts in state funding for Iowa’s regent universities have been a major driver of increased tuition costs in recent years.

Regardless, next year’s tuition freeze will be the first of its kind in more than three decades and will provide some welcome relief for students, who have seen their tuition grow year after year.

Since 1980, tuition has grown by at least 3.2 percent annually, outpacing inflation and even health-care costs. Over the past 10 years, the cost of in-state tuition for Iowa’s public universities has almost tripled.

As costs these have skyrocketed, the relative benefits of a college education have shrunk. It is more difficult than ever for students to find adequate work upon graduation, and today’s average graduate is already saddled with more than $25,000 in debt.

A tuition freeze is an admirable step to disrupt the runaway growth of college costs, but does not represent anything more than a temporary reprieve from a very real problem. The tuition freeze will benefit only about two-fifths of the total enrollment at Iowa’s three public universities, and even those helped will benefit for only a year.

What is needed is a set of long-term solutions to reverse the broader trend of rising education costs that threaten the economic viability of a good education for too many prospective students. Given the political animus that has arisen over the relatively mild issue of a one-year tuition freeze, however, it is not easy to see policymakers at any level agreeing to combat this problem until the twin economic problems of prohibitively high tuition and crippling student debt become a more readily apparent drag on the economy.


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