Leaders of two regent universities are calling for a Performance Based Funding program for the public schools in the state, and that should not be a surprise, since their schools have been on the short end of the stick for some time.
The axiom in Iowa has long been "40/40/20" for funding the three schools - 40 percent of the money going to the University of Iowa, 40 percent to Iowa State University and 20 percent to the smaller University of Northern Iowa, but in reality, that hasn't been anything close to the truth for a long, long time.
For fiscal 2014, U of Iowa got 46 percent of the total operating dollars from the state, while educating only 34 percent of the total number of Iowa students in the regent universities. Iowa State got 36 percent of the dollars while serving 43 percent of the Iowa students. UNI got 18 percent of the money and has 23 percent of the Iowa students.
Look at that another way - Hawkeyeland gets $14,500 per Iowa student educated, while Cyclone Nation and Pantherville get only about $9,000 per - a pretty big inequity if you ask me, though I may be a bit biased, as a parent of a student at Ames.
I suppose UI backers would say they deserve more money because they must run the University of Iowa Hospitals, but then again, those hospitals take in a good deal of revenue too. Even without the slightly more than $1 million the Regents earmark for the med program, Iowa still gets more money than the others. And the other schools certainly have their own specialty programs and facilities to run that are valuable and not inexpensive too.
One could also point out that these institutions don't only educate Iowans. In fact, students come from about 50 different countries to take advantage of Iowa's public higher education facilities.
As an Iowa parent, I can say that we do value those students from around the country and the world, who bring vitality to the campuses, not to mention the out-of-state premium tuition dollars. But we also have diversity right here in Iowa, and I believe the first mission of universities funded by Iowa taxpayers is to educate Iowa students at a high level, as affordably as possible, and that scholarships originating from Iowa funding should go first to students from Iowa.
The three regent institutions enroll only about 20 percent of the state's high school graduates, and that's fine. We are blessed with many options for education in Iowa, and the private schools, community colleges, and vocational programs need to retain their share of young Iowans to thrive also.
We are told that a Performance based Funding system, as is already in place in most other states, will not only measure and reward the regent school's performance, but determine if Iowa taxpayer dollars are appropriately focused on educating Iowa students.
It would likely cost U of I its longtime operations funding advantage (after a year grace period to adapt), but it only seems fair that the universities each get a similar amount per student to be educated. If any one cannot run on their share, they should be looking internally to see where budget changes need to be made.
I realize that sports raises money itself, but nearly $4 million a year for a football coach - far and away more than any educator, university president or even the governor - plus a $100,000 bonus for making the Outback Bowl in 2014, seems just a bit ridiculous. In fact, the ten most highly paid employees for the state of Iowa are all coaches and athletic directors.
Perhaps the big three could also learn from Buena Vista University, which has spent the past year in an intensive and transparent intensive study, resulting in some tough decisions on programs to add and end to match the needs of future students.
In recent years, colleges have also often concentrated on amenities, but real students don't choose a college based on climbing walls, plush student lounges, gourmet meals, water parks and fancy suite housing. Hopefully, they choose based on excellence in programs, professors, intern opportunities, as well as a welcoming campus.
My son lives in a dorm room that is more expensive than his education, dating to about the time 1957 Chevys were in style, about the size of a healthy walk-in closet, without even a sink. Whatever lounges the dorms once had, are now filled with students as enrollment peaks. The parking situation stinks, the classroom buildings are mostly showing their age. And he loves it.
Do we need a trendy new program to tell us how to fund the state's public colleges? I don't know.
But I do think we can agree that it's time to think academics first, to offer the innovative courses of studies that will be needed for students not only today but 25 years from now - and it's time to treat students at all three colleges as if they are of equal value to our society.
It took a task force a year of study to come up with the Performance Based Funding plan. It's now been a full year since it was completed, with no action. Try taking two years to write a tuition check and see how that goes over. And please, spare me that tired line about college no longer being worth the cost.
Higher education isn't for everybody, but it is for about everyone who hopes to make a better income over their lifetime. Just as importantly, it is about soaking up that atmosphere of curiosity and experimentation and exploration, which can make your life a richer enterprise, and I don't mean financially. It can be priceless.
We all depend on a supply of higher skilled, productive, engaged citizens and the education they will bring to our communities.
Is it worth it? You better hope so, if you plan to need a teacher, a banker, a doctor, an inventor, a builder, a journalist, a lawyer, a veterinarian, and on and on, at any time in the future.