Tuition rising — is anyone surprised?

There is a price to families when the Legislature chooses not to fund higher education.

Today’s announcement of plans to raise tuition at Iowa universities should not surprise anyone. When the Legislature cuts back, the regents need to fill in the gaps. And that creates new gaps, in family budgets immediately, and beyond, with — student debt.

A recent feature in The Des Moines Register has delved into the issue of rising student debt. The Register story features testimonies from soon to be graduates as well as recently graduated students, who talk about how they will handle their student debt. Register reporter Kathy Bolton cites “worrisome signs that future students will be forced to borrow even more to get their degrees.”[1] An excerpt:

State legislatures are decreasing funding to public universities and community colleges. In Iowa, for instance, state funding to the three public universities is now less than in the 2015 fiscal year. Mid-year budget cuts are expected this spring and there’s uncertainty about next year’s state funding.”

The full picture is considerably more stark. Adjusting for inflation, state funding for public universities has declined since fiscal year 2001, by 40 percent at the University of Iowa, 42 percent at Iowa State University, and 28 percent at the University of Northern Iowa.[2]

And these calculations do not include the recent current-year budget cuts for FY2018 ordered by the Legislature and signed by the Governor that took a disproportionate share from the regent institutions — $11 million or about one-third of the total.

To fill the financial needs of the institutions, the regents have turned to increasing the annual tuition paid by students. Between fiscal year 2001 and 2016, tuition at the regent universities has increased between 72 percent and 75 percent. [3]

In fact, there has been a shift in the primary source of funding, from state appropriations to tuition and fees. In fiscal year 2001 the University of Iowa received 63 percent of its budget from the state. In fiscal year 2016 it had dropped to 34 percent. For the other universities the drop was: 68 percent to 35 percent at ISU, and 70 percent to 56 percent at UNI.[4]

As noted in the Register article:

“Lower-middle-class and working families don’t have big chunks of money sitting around to pay for their kids’ college education,” said (Chase) Lampe, a Pleasantville High School social studies teacher. “As costs go up, students are going to take out more loans — or not go to college at all.”

While university tuition and fees rise, wages of Iowans have not kept pace. As part of the Iowa College Student Aid Commission’s annual report for fiscal year 2016,[5] director Karen Misjak stated that “one very simple number tells the story:”

Of the 175,500 Iowans who filed a FAFSA for the 2014-15 academic year, more than 60,000 were found to have an Expected Family Contribution of zero. That means one in three families could not provide any financial support for a student in college.”

How much harder has it become to pay for a college education in Iowa? In fiscal year 2001 individuals working at the median wage in Iowa could pay for the average tuition at the regent universities by working for 36 days. That number had increased to 60 days in fiscal year 2016 — a two-thirds increase. For low-income individuals, those working at the 20th percentile of wages, the challenge is even greater: days of work required increased from 53 to 92 — a 75 percent increase.[6]

There is a price to families when the Legislature chooses not to fund higher education.

[1] Kathy A. Bolton, “Degrees of Debt,” The Des Moines Register. 2018, https://features.desmoinesregister.com/news/student-loan-debt-poised-increase/

[2] Adjusted for inflation using the Higher Education Price Index, 2016 dollars.

[3] Iowa Board of Regents data; adjusted for inflation using the Higher Education Price Index, 2016 dollars, tuition and fees rose by 72 percent from 2001-16 at ISU, 74 percent at UNI and 75 percent at UI.

[4] Iowa Board of Regents data.

[5] Iowa College Aid Commission Annual Report for FY2016, “A letter from the executive director,” https://www.iowacollegeaid.gov/content/executive-director

[6] Author’s calculation of work days needed to pay tuition and fees is the NCES average tuition and fees (adjusted) divided by Economic Policy Institute analysis of Current Population survey data of Iowa median and 20th percentile wages, divided by 8 (hours).

Brandon Borkovec is a Masters of Social Work student at St. Ambrose University, working this school year as an intern at the Iowa Policy Project on public policy analysis.