Guest Commentary

Guest Commentary by Michael Gartner

The tuition increase: Wrong on every front

by Michael Gartner


The Board of Regents raised tuition at the state’s three public universities last week. That was a mistake.

In the short run, it’s bad for the students and their parents, who are hard-pressed for money in these hard times.

In the long run, it’s bad for the universities, who are pricing themselves out of the market just as the competition is increasing and the number of potential Iowa students is declining.

First, the facts. At their Feb. 4 meeting, the Regents voted 7 to 2 to increase tuition for the next academic year. While news stories called it a 6 percent increase for undergraduate students who live in Iowa, it actually ranged up to 12.6 percent. At the University of Iowa, the average increase of tuition and mandatory fees is really 8.7 percent, or $593, to $7,417. At Iowa State, the average is 5.2 percent, or $346. At the University of Northern Iowa, the average is 5.6 percent, or $372. But at Iowa, the tuition and fees for upper-division engineering students will go up 10.9 percent, or $945. At Iowa State, the tuition and fees for upper-division business students will go up 12.2 percent, or $876. And at UNI, tuition and fees for upper-division business students will go up 12.6 percent, or $902.

By the universities’ reckoning, the total cost for an Iowa resident to attend undergraduate school at the University of Iowa next year will be $19,815. At Iowa State, the figure will be $19,079.70. At UNI, $18,608. Those figures assume only slight increases in room and board and travel and books, and they’re probably on the low side. The median household income in Iowa in 2008 was $49,007, according to the United States Census Bureau, and it was far less in counties in southern and northeastern Iowa. Put another way, it now takes about half the pre-tax household income of an average Iowa family to send a son or daughter to a state university.

Then, throw in this fact: More than half the students who graduate from a state university take more than four years to get their diplomas, which means that they and their families continue to pay for education and amass debts into a fifth and sometimes sixth year. At the University of Iowa, students with debt who graduated in four years had an average debt of $21,312 when they graduated; those that took longer than four years had an average debt of $25,691 at graduation. At Iowa State, where only a third of students graduate in four years, the disparity was much greater — $24,964 for the four-year students, a whopping $35,108 for those who took longer to matriculate.

So the tuition increase puts the cost of a public education beyond the reach of many Iowa families and is a real burden on others.

And it’s the wrong thing for the universities as well.

There’s no doubt the universities are facing hard times. Appropriations from the Legislature — one of the two main feeders to the universities’ general-education budgets of about $1.1 billion — are falling dramatically. And raising tuition — the other main source — is the easy way to offset that.

But the universities don’t exist in a vacuum; they must compete for students. In Iowa, the main competitors are the two-year community colleges and the four-year private schools, although the for-profit schools like Kaplan and the University of Phoenix are growing dramatically.

Historically, the 15 community colleges were more like trade schools than liberal-arts schools, the private schools were small, high-tuition institutions, and the for-profits didn’t exist. But the community colleges have broadened their offerings, and now they’re more like years one and two of a university (and some now have dorms and sports teams as well). At Des Moines Area Community College, which soon will have eight campuses, an Iowa resident can take 30 hours of credit for $3,450 a year — less than half the cost at a state university. Enrollment and credit-hours taken both are up about 20 percent this year. It’s the same at most other area colleges.

Iowa’s 30 or so private colleges, too, are increasingly competitive. Their tuition increases are moderate — averaging 3.5 percent the past couple of years — but the amount of aid being offered is up significantly. The real tuition at many of those colleges now is just half of what the sticker price is. And they graduate most of their students in four years. So it now costs little more to go to a good private school in this state than it does to go to a state school. And, as the association of private colleges notes in its ads, the private colleges are places “where teachers teach” — a not-so-subtle dig at the massive use of teaching assistants at the University of Iowa in particular.

Meantime, the for-profits are growing speedily. The University of Phoenix, with 455,600 students, is now the second-largest higher-education system in the country, larger than the California system and behind only the State University of New York. More than 90 percent of all the for-profit students are enrolled in degree-granting programs. “They are clearly a threat for both public and private schools,” a consultant told The Chronicle of Higher Education this week.

And in Iowa, all these schools — the state universities, the area colleges, the private colleges and the for-profits — are chasing a declining number of students. In the past decade, the kindergarten-through-twelfth-grade enrollment at Iowa’s schools has declined by more than 20,000 students.

So while raising tuition is the easy out for the money-pressed state schools, it’s the wrong strategy. And since it’s unlikely the schools ever will get much of an increase in state aid, they’ll have to look to restructuring themselves to keep costs down and tuition competitive. That means increasing teaching loads — most faculty teach no more than two courses a semester. It means eliminating courses and whole departments where there is little demand for services or duplication within the system. It means selling assets that aren’t essential to education. It means using resources more efficiently — like scheduling Friday and Saturday and evening classes. It means going head-to-head against the for-profits by offering inexpensive “distance learning.” It means getting athletic costs under control. It means more sharing among the three universities — consolidation of functions and sharing of faculty, of resources and of students.

It means change.

And universities — in Iowa and elsewhere — aren’t very good at that. CV


Michael Gartner is the former president and a current member of the Board of Regents. He and Ruth Harkin cast the two votes against the tuition increase.

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