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University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld

University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld addresses the Iowa Board of Regents' tuition task force on the university's five-year tuition plan at Kollros Auditorium in the Biology Building East in Iowa City, Iowa, on Monday.

We weren't in the room, but we presume presidents of Iowa State University and the University of Iowa were straight-faced when they made proposals earlier this month to members of a Board of Regents task force studying tuition.

But it's hard for us to take them seriously.

Ben Allen, interim ISU president, on Aug. 9 proposed an increase in resident undergraduate tuition of 7 percent and an increase in nonresident undergraduate tuition of 4 percent each year for the next five years. Bruce Harreld, U of I president, on Aug. 14 proposed an increase in resident undergraduate tuition of 7 percent and in nonresident undergraduate tuition of 2 percent each year for the next five years.

In our view, total increases for the five years under their proposals are unacceptably large. We believe they would increase the burden on students and families - in particular, Iowa students and families - by too much.

Still, they represent a starting point for an important discussion.

We applaud the Regents for formation of the task force because we recognize the need for and support a comprehensive study of tuition at our state's three public universities. The discussion grows in urgency at this time of declining state revenue and a resulting tight state budget.

However, the issue of funding for Regent institutions isn't about just tuition. And no one quick, simple solution provides everything Regent schools want and at the same time fits the state budget, keeps public colleges in Iowa affordable for families and protects against a dramatic increase in the already troubling level of debt carried by Iowa college students.

Rather, we believe in a comprehensive funding strategy focused on the long term that embraces recognition of realities, discipline, bold leadership, creativity, openness to change and collaboration.

In our view, it should include dialogue about:

Additional savings

In 2014, the Regents approved recommendations made by a consultant designed to provide tens of millions of dollars in annual savings and reinvestment within the university system.

Perhaps it's time to study another round of cost-reduction measures.

Elimination of degree programs

Perhaps Iowa's three public universities do not need every degree program they offer. In other words, perhaps elimination of some degree programs - in particular, those programs offered by all three institutions - should be considered.

Is it necessary for all three universities to offer, say, a business degree?

Just because something always has been done a certain way doesn't mean it can't or shouldn't change.

Take, for another example, Iowa's antiquated system of 99 counties. We advocate for an overdue discussion of county consolidation as a means by which to save taxpayers money.

Will discussions like elimination of degree programs and consolidation of counties be difficult? Yes. Are they impossible? Absolutely not.

Increased private donations

American colleges raised $40.3 billion in 2015, according to a Voluntary Support of Education survey conducted by the Council for Aid to Education. Stanford University raised the most, $1.63 billion.

Can Iowa's Regent institutions do better in terms of securing philanthropic gifts?

Reasonable tuition increases

In 2014, the Board of Regents voted to freeze tuition for resident undergraduates for an unprecedented third consecutive year, contingent on a modest increase in state funding. The freeze didn't last for the full third year due to lack of funding from the state, but we used this space at the time to support another year of freeze because we felt families deserved a break.

Moving forward, perhaps it isn't advisable to freeze tuition, perhaps it makes more sense to increase tuition each year by a manageable amount.

Decisions on tuition hikes shouldn't ignore student debt. Iowa college students carried an average of $29,547 in student loan debt when they graduated in 2015, which ranked Iowa 15th in the nation.

Increased legislative support

Historically, we have taken a conservative approach to the state budget, but the fact per-student funding for Iowa's universities fell 22 percent between 2008 and 2016 (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities) gives pause.

Do we as a state value and believe in the importance to Iowa and our nation of strong public institutions of higher education? If the answer is "yes," as we believe it is and should be, and if Regent institutions do their part, the Legislature should do its part by finding a way to strengthen and sustain its commitment to them.


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