Officials: As economy improves, higher education funding should jump


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As the economy seems to improve, so do the hopes of state Board of Regents members that the Iowa Legislature will allocate more money to public universities.

That hope is reflected across the country. A recent survey, released by Grapevine and Illinois State University, reported that a majority of states are seeing an increase in public education funding.

Although the national average is still in a decline of 0.4 percent decrease from fiscal 2012 to fiscal 2013, it is a vast improvement over the 7.5 percent decline from fiscal 2011 to fiscal 2012.

From fiscal 2013, Iowa saw an increase of 6.4 percent in state funding, and officials hope the trend will continue.

“I would be hopeful that we’d get somewhat more money,” Regent Robert Downer said. “I’m guardedly optimistic.”

Gov. Terry Branstad’s budget proposal for fiscal 2014 includes the needed funds to allow the regents to implement a tuition freeze for in-state undergraduates at the three state universities next fall.

Whether public universities receive more money can depend a lot on the state of the economy and the state’s budget.

“The universities tend to do well in the years that the state budget is in good shape,” Downer said.
Even when there is money, education often has a lower priority.

“Historically, the universities have been one of the last levels provided for in the state appropriations,” Downer said.

Patrick Barron, a UI adjunct lecturer in economics, said money often goes to the area that has the most voters.

“It’s not as objective as you would wish it to be,” he said. “It’s more politically driven.”
But officials agree funding from the state is important.

“We are trying very hard to make sure an Iowa education is affordable, especially for Iowa students,” UI President Sally Mason said in a Daily Iowan TV interview Jan. 24. “That’s who we are here to serve, first and foremost.”

Tom Mortenson, a senior scholar at the nonpartisan Pell Institute, said that without state funding, schools are forced to rely on alternative methods of raising money, including out-of-state tuition.
“Out of necessity, the universities are turning to alternative sources of revenue,” he said. “It’s kind of a survival strategy in the face of cutbacks from the state.”

But Mortenson insists this is not a good thing.

“Tuition is paying a growing share of the costs of the core functions of the university, but the spending on instructing students is declining,” he said.

Mortenson said that as schools focus efforts on attracting students from out-of-state and international students, they neglect the lower-income in-state students.

“It’s tough for the universities, and it’s tough for the states, but it’s devastating for the students,” he said.

Downer, however, adamantly disagrees that any students are being left behind.

“I don’t think in any respect the interests of Iowan students are being neglected,” he said.

In fact, the students from outside of Iowa’s borders provide more than just money.

“I think it’s been a very positive thing,” Downer said. “It adds to the diversity of the student body.”
But they do both agree that state funding is necessary. According to the news release that accompanies the survey, if the trend continues the funding will follow.

“Barring a further downturn in the economy, the relatively small overall change from fiscal 2012 to fiscal 2013 suggests that higher education may be at the beginning stages of a climb out of the fiscal trough caused by the last recession,” the report said.

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