Editorial: Tuition freeze only a stopgap, if a welcome one


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The rising cost of tuition has proven to be an enduring issue for college activists, but it has yet to make a major impact in elections. Politicians have paid lip service to the idea of student-debt reform, but when push comes to shove, little has changed.

Part of the problem is that education is not on the short list of issues that candidates feel they have to address. For better or worse, young people don’t vote. Student debt is overshadowed by Social Security and the economy, along with foreign crises that draw more attention.

But student debt threatens to become a crisis of its own, a slowly expanding bubble that (like the housing market before it) could burst eventually. The total student-loan debt owed by college graduates in 2013 was $1.2 trillion, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. That’s a 20 percent increase from the end of 2011, and it is building much faster than such items as credit-card debt, which increased less than 2 percent in that same time. Student loans are now the second largest form of consumer debt, behind home mortgages.

With average students graduating $26,600 in debt, their economic prospects look increasingly grim. For many college graduates, the price of entry may no longer be worth the intrinsic value higher education provides. And since the U.S. government backs most student loans, the risk of default is put on American taxpayers.

That should sound the alarm for those concerned about the U.S. economy. A loan-burdened workforce is not one that’s ready to revitalize a sluggish economic recovery.

While nationwide action on student debt has stalled, it’s been up to state institutions to make a difference. For the past second year in a row, the state Board of Regents has frozen the cost of tuition for in-state students at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University, and the University of Northern Iowa. But that freeze was not typical; the last time the regents froze tuition at the same rate for several years was in the early 1970s.

Now, it seems the realities of inflation have caught up with the regents. Their proposal for 2015-16 tuition and fees does not include a freeze. Instead, resident tuition would increase by 1.75 percent (which is still well below the national average of 5.4 percent). Still, this is not an easy pill to swallow, especially for several state legislators who had hoped to pass another freeze.

What’s problematic about this proposal is that it was seemingly done without consulting state lawmakers. Last year, the regents met with the Legislature Fiscal Committee to discuss a tuition freeze. But they have not done so yet this year.

A group of lawmakers, including Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, intends to bypass the regents on a tuition freeze in the Iowa Legislature. Considering the national context on student debt, this is a symbolically important move to take. Students at the three state universities would also appreciate it, and the Daily Iowan Editorial Board believes lawmakers should pursue this option.

But a tuition freeze is not permanent. Tuition revenues compopse 60.7 percent of the combined operating budgets for the regent universities, and making cuts to inefficient areas of these institutions can only go so far. Lasting action on rising tuition will have to come from a nationwide effort, not just a state stopgap.

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