a pilot special report: Families and the Iowa tuition freeze

Monday, December 10, 2012

The state Board of Regents unanimously approved a tuition freeze for undergraduate resident students for the 2013-2014 academic year Wednesday, but will that be enough to help keep college an option for financially-strapped families?

"Anything helps, but the cost is still at the point where a normal family can barely fathom it," said one local parent with a student at the University of Northern Iowa. "The state schools don't offer all that much in scholarships and aid, and you don't want to see your child pile up debt they can never hope to get paid off. You save and save, but it's not enough - as college gets closer you feel like a deer standing on the highway with headlights coming at you."

In a school district where 74 percent of all students qualify for free/reduced lunch programs, the prospective cost of higher education continued to be a hurdle for families, according to Storm Lake Superintendent of Schools Carl Turner.

"It's a big mountain for parents here to try to climb. Of course, a freeze helps a little bit, but the problem is that tuition prices are being frozen at a level that is already too high for many people. As a parent today, unless you are quite wealthy, I don't think you can plan any more to set aside enough to put your children through a four-year university."

Area schools have been doing what they can - holding financial aid workshops for parents, counseling students on how to borrow money for their education as affordably as possible, trying to get scholarship applications into the hands of as many students as possible.

Storm Lake goes a step farther. A Dollars for Scholars program collects public donations and distributes the money in the form of small grants to college-bound applicants - perhaps enough to cover a student's first semester cost for books.

A charter school gives students an option of a five-year track to chase both a high school degree and community college credit. "This is why the charter started - leaders here wanted to make sure that families didn't have to feel that costs would prohibit them from thinking higher education could be possible," Turner said. "We have students right now earning an Associate Degree without any cost to themselves. In essence, they can get a four-year college degree for the price of two years."

It may sound unusual coming from the leader of a school district, but Turner says he does not believe that every graduate necessarily needs to have a goal to attend a university.

"In these times we see lots of young people graduating from excellent universities with four-years degrees or more, only to find that there are not jobs available for them in their area of study. Families are starting to ask the question of whether their big investment is going to get them where they want to go," Turner says. "We are encouraging students to find areas of interest in places where jobs exist - and while everyone should continue learning, a four-year college degree isn't necessarily the way to get there for everyone at this point."

College admissions officials often simply encourage students and their families to borrow the money they need for college, but the depths of debt into which young people are falling will be a major social issue, the superintendent says.

"We're starting to see parents borrowing money to send their kids to college, when the parents haven't paid off their own college loans yet," he said. Turner said his own son expects to finish paying off his own college costs at age 50.

Another issue in today's economy is that a student must often work a high number of hours while going through college in order to help pay their bills, which in turn may compromise how much they can study. "They can't work and take the number of credit hours they really need, so we see a high number of students having to go five years in college for a four-year degree, and that just piles on more debt," Turner says.

While a freeze is welcome, it isn't the answer, he feels. "Schools like us, colleges, parents, everyone needs to do a better job. We need to figure out where that student wants to go, and then find the most efficient way to get them there without accumulating a lifetime of debt."

State Rep. Gary Worthan from Storm Lake, echoes the call for efficiency.

"Ultimately we have to stop this rate of increase in the cost of a college education. Something has to give. Over the past several years the board of regents has not really been responsible to the legislature to create efficiencies and cut costs where they can be cut - instead they just cone and ask for more money."

Last session, Worthan said he had many calls from frustrated parents who were just above the threshold for Pell grants and need-based scholarships, paying Iowa university cost out of pocket while 20 percent of the tuition from their students' bills was actually going to subsidize aid for other students. "It blew up between regents and the legislature last year, and that was the empatis behind this freeze thing. Everyone is trying to find a graceful way out of that unfair situation."

Worth said his main concern is that the federal government may back out of grants and aid programs for education, leaving states in a lurch, or that the feds will dump much more cost for programs like Medicaid on Iowa, making it hard for the state budget to keep up with needs for higher education.

He noted that tuition is rising almost as fast for community colleges as for the regent universities, when viewed as a percentage. "That's where our skilled workforce is going to come from. We can't have families get priced out of it. There is going to be a lot of push and pull this coming legislative session on where those our funding dollars for colleges are going to end up."

The tuition freeze will be effective for the summer session at the three regent universities. (Nonresidents will see a 2.6 percent increase in base tuition, and graduate student tuition will increase 2.6 percent for both residents and non-residents.)

In agreeing to a freeze, the leaders of the universities are gambling that lawmakers will approve enough new funding to continue operating without cuts - about a 2.6 percent increase or roughly $40 million. Regents have warned they may turn around and raise tuition in the spring if the Legislature does not come through - a public relations fiasco in the making for the state.

The tuition freeze is the first since 1982 in Iowa, where graduates carry some of the nation's highest student debt loads. The Board of Regents approved the plan without discussion during a phone meeting.

The regents are also asking lawmakers to create a separate $40 million financial aid program for low-income college students to phase out the unpopular tuition subsidy that sets aside 15 percent of tuition revenue for merit scholarships for needier Iowa undergraduates.

Gov. Terry Branstad isn't endorsing the funding to enable the tuition freeze.

"The governor needs to look at the budget in its entirety before determining what resources will go where," Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht said.

Last year, regents raised tuition rates nearly 4 percent despite lobbying the legislature to receive a $23 million funding increase, on the heels of several years of cuts.

House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, said the tuition freeze plan "appears to be a thoughtful proposal" that will be taken seriously. He said Iowa's public universities "are probably a little closer to the front of the line" for funding than other groups in a tight budget year. Several lawmakers have said they appreciate the regents proactive approach that shows additional funding would be used to achieve the tuition freeze.

"The student debt out there is horrible," he said. "We do not want to force young talent out of a higher education because they can't afford it. That's extremely counterproductive," said Brian Schoenjahn, chair of the Senate Education Appropriations Committee.

In a recent survey of state lawmakers involving student journalists at all three state universities and the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism, most of those responding said they will keep an open mind on the funding to make the freeze possible, pending the budget proposal coming from Branstad next month.

A few Republicans said they will flat-out oppose the plan, saying that additional state money should be aimed at needs in mental health and K-12 schools, not at "entitlements" for the universities.

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