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Editorial: Extend the tuition freeze

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | SEPTEMBER 13, 2013 5:00 AM

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Though economic conditions are improving or at least holding steady for many Americans, one group still faces an uncertain future: college students.

The combination of a lackluster job market with increasing tuition and other college costs has delivered an effective one-two punch to today’s students. Not only will they have thousands of dollars in student loan debt to take care of, but they also may not even have a career to help pay it off.

The rising cost of college is a concern shared by the state Board of Regents, the body responsible for overseeing Iowa’s three public universities. On Thursday, Regent President Bruce Rastetter said the regents would seek a 4 percent funding increase from the state Legislature, allowing them to freeze in-state tuition for the second year in a row, the first time since 1975.

Rastetter said college affordability was a major priority for the board as well as other state bodies.

“[It is] a joint responsibility — a responsibility among the Board of Regents, the Legislature, and the institution,” he said.

The regents’ concerns about rising costs certainly have merit. According to data from the College Board, average in-state tuition and fees at public four-year universities in the United States rose by approximately 66 percent between 2002 and 2012, from $5,213 to $8,655 per year.

The cause of this increasing cost is multifaceted and doesn’t have an easy solution. Funding for public universities across the nation has decreased, and government loans have subsidized the borrowing process, allowing students to take out larger loans and schools to charge more in tuition in response.

Simply freezing costs for one more year for only a subsection of the regent schools’ students — this year’s tuition freeze affected only undergraduates paying in-state tuition — will not address the deeper systemic issues responsible for rising college costs.

But even though Iowa residents make up only 47 percent of the University of Iowa’s student population (and out-of-state students pay nearly four times the in-state tuition rate of $6,678), a tuition freeze is still a viable short-term stopgap in the long-term issue of college affordability.

Another year of in-state tuition freezes won’t solve the issue in Iowa, but it is an important measure to be taken and one that has symbolic as much as practical value. By approving another tuition freeze, the Legislature would send a message to students at public universities: Your voices are heard. Such a move could potentially increase enrollment at the state’s public universities as well.

The Legislature should approve the regents’ proposed budget increase.

A 4 percent funding increase would amount to about $19.6 million, a relatively small figure in the grand scheme of state education funding, especially considering that such funding is not just drained into the system with no returns but is an investment. Today’s college graduates will soon fill the gaps in the work force left by retiring baby boomers; ensuring that they are well-equipped to fill those roles should be a priority.

To be clear, serious brainstorming is necessary for the future of higher education, and a tuition freeze is just the first step. But the Legislature has an opportunity to bring students back to our public universities instead of pushing them away with higher costs. Such an opportunity is worth an extra 4 percent onto the funding price tag.


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