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Iowa regents last fall unveiled tuition “guardrails” for the next five years that clearly hitch the rate of annual increases to the level of state appropriations — making an overt statement about where they believe the burden of student rate hikes rests: on the backs of lawmakers.

And some legislators who’ve advocated higher appropriations amid tight budgets said they’re glad to carry that load.

“I think it’s high time the Board of Regents points out to Iowans that they manage the resources they’re given,” said Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Waterloo, whose district includes the University of Northern Iowa.

“They’re very limited if legislators and the governor shortchange the universities and don’t provide the necessary resources,” he said. “The regents’ only tool is to raise tuition and fees, and then that extends back to students and Iowa families.”

As a Democrat, Danielson is in the minority in the GOP-controlled Iowa Legislature, which convenes Monday for its 2019 session. Republican leaders say it’s more complicated than that — and that university officials themselves have been calling for higher tuition rates to be more on par with their peers.

“To circle back and blame the Legislature for having to raise your tuition seems plain disingenuous,” said Iowa House Speaker Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake.

Declining state support has been the biggest and most impactful legislative issue across Iowa’s higher education landscape in recent years, with midyear cuts and appropriation decreases in the 2017 and 2018 budget years slashing more than $40 million in general university support.

Legislators for the current budget year restored a fraction of that — $8.3 million — and regent university heads have asked for another $18 million in reinstated general education appropriations for fiscal 2020.

If lawmakers come through on that, the University of Iowa and Iowa State University would each take $7 million more, and UNI would snag $4 million more.

Regent and university leaders in the fall argued they need to bring the UI and ISU tuition rates closer to those at peer institutions, but they promised to hold increases to 3 percent annually over five years — as long as lawmakers meet their appropriation requests.

If they don’t, the board will implement higher bumps at the UI and ISU, using an equation that adds the projected Higher Education Price Index to the base 3 percent.

As for the levers at UNI, regents agreed to start treating it differently as that regional university has lower-cost peers and boasts majority in-state students.

Because Iowa students pay lower rates, UNI generates less tuition revenue than its ISU and UI counterparts, but can’t make it up in rate increases because its peers — that is, competitors — don’t cost as much.

Enacting increases at the rate UI and ISU plan to would price UNI above its peers and hurt its ability to compete.

“They need a greater investment, relative to the other two,” Danielson said about appropriations for UNI. “UNI has gotten a better percentage and a higher dollar amount relative to the other two, and I think that needs to continue.”

UNI President Mark Nook gave a briefing Friday on his school’s 2019-2020 legislative priorities. He announced plans to “maintain tuition costs essentially at current levels” if lawmakers approve the school’s request for a $4 million more in appropriations.

“Although UNI students already graduate with less debt than the average college student, the university is committed to making education even more affordable,” he said.

Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, said after two straight sessions of midyear cuts that prompted campus cost-cutting, he expects regent universities will escape de-appropriations from their already-approved fiscal 2019 budgets this year.

But the projection for the fiscal 2020 state budget, which lawmakers will set this session, envisions tighter growth.

Net tax revenue growth is estimated to be 1.8 percent — or just $140 million more for the $7-billion-plus state general fund.

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With student debt rising and wages relatively low across Iowa, Bolkcom said he hopes to keep tuition increases as modest as possible — even while some university administrators and lawmakers have said costs at the UI and ISU have a long way to go before abutting peer rates.

It was only a few years ago that the universities were able to freeze resident undergraduate rates because of robust appropriations. Now with the question not being whether there will be a rate increase but rather how big, those days appear to be over.

“I honestly never thought that was a great idea,” Upmeyer said. “I think having a stable, predictable, small increase with some regularity makes some sense.”

Upmeyer voiced qualms with blaming the Legislature for tuition increases, asserting the regents will “raise tuition no matter how much money we give them.”

“When presidents from the universities come in and tell me they are priced below their peer group and ask us not to make too much noise when we increase our tuition because we should be competitive, there’s a part of me that says, ‘If you’re going to a Big Ten or a Big 12 school, the expectation is that you’ll probably be in that ballpark,’” she said.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver, R-Ankeny, also cited the universities’ desire to bring tuition on par with like institutions — regardless of state funding — and said his understanding is the Legislature “wants to keep tuition down as much as possible.”

“So you have a disconnect between the Legislature that wants to keep tuition really low and the universities wanting to increase them,” Whitver said, adding he’d like more transparency around how the regents spend the millions in state support.

“We don’t have a lot of control,” he said.

Although projections from the state’s revenue estimating conference for the upcoming budget year are more optimistic than in the recent past, Gov. Kim Reynolds in an interview this month did not apologize for the 2017 and 2018 de-appropriations, nor make promises about the future.

“It was less than 2 percent,” she said of the $11 million regents cut last year. “Businesses are doing that on a daily basis … We make tough decisions. I don’t get to print money. I have to live within my budget.”

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