Iowa legislators must support state universities' funding, not just targeted student scholarships

Iowa Capital Dispatch

When I started my freshman year in college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I graduated.

I knew I was a writer, but I had no clear job goal in mind. For the first two years at Iowa State University, I registered for courses that would fit into either an English or a journalism major. But I didn’t make up my mind until faced with a deadline: Either pick a major or take an extra year to graduate.

Performing on deadline is a crucial skill for journalists, so I made the decision. I can’t say I’ve never regretted it over the years, but I’ve also never wished I was teaching English instead.

Sadly, the opportunity for young Iowans to explore, experiment and possibly reconsider a career path while in college may become a luxury reserved only for the wealthy.

Republicans who control the Iowa House are again considering shortchanging state universities. House Speaker Pat Grassley said in an interview last week he anticipates lawmakers telling the Regents universities: “… We will give you the money that you’ve requested, but it’s going to be in forms of scholarships for high-demand fields that are set up by the (Department of) Workforce Development.”

Iowa House Republicans proposed a similar approach last year, offering $12 million in scholarships for “high-demand” fields and zero increase in state aid for the universities expected to educate these students. Senate Republicans didn’t buy into this approach but were fully on board with stiffing the universities. In the end, the Legislature approved just $5.5 million for the state universities out of the Regents’ $22 million funding request.

The Regents responded by raising tuition by 4.25 percent, adding to the cost of a college education for tens of thousands of Iowans. Even if lawmakers had provided $22 million for scholarships, that would not have changed the need for universities to keep the lights on, pay faculty and staff and continue to operate the hundreds of important programs that did not qualify for the scholarships.

The Iowa Board of Regents, which governs Iowa’s three state universities, decided this fall to ask for a $34 million increase in state aid, citing steep inflation and flat state funding over the past several years. Another year of minimal or zero increases in state aid would no doubt lead to even higher tuition increases, putting a college education out of reach for even more Iowans. Even students who qualify for proposed scholarships would see their buying power erode as tuition rises.

Grassley said he thinks that’s a fine idea.

“I actually think that it could have a positive effect. It gives our institutions the ability to not only compete with one another but compete for students, whether they’re in state or out of state, to be able to say, look what we have here that we can offer you to come to our school. It’s all about volume to me.”

Iowa’s universities already have the ability to compete with one another. They do this in a variety of ways but most obviously by specializing in some areas. University of Iowa has a medical school. Iowa State’s engineering and agriculture programs stand out. University of Northern Iowa has maintained its tradition as a teachers’ college. Each institution has many more areas of excellence, but you get the idea.

Iowa’s universities also have been able to compete successfully over the years with out-of-state institutions, primarily by being a tuition bargain. While it’s true that many of those out-of-state students leave after they graduate, some stay in Iowa to work and raise their families. Higher out-of-state tuition also helps subsidize Iowans’ education. But eroding state support will make Iowa universities less attractive to out-of-state bargain hunters.

Grassley said, and I wholeheartedly agree, that the Regents universities need to be part of the solution to Iowa’s workforce challenges. Again, they already are training workers for high-skill positions, adding programs in workforce shortage areas such as nursing and conducting research that helps fuel Iowa’s economy. Chances are, the high-demand fields of the future will be discovered by university researchers.

Putting additional state dollars into university scholarships for high-demand fields is a great idea. The governor and Legislature have been doing this at the community college level for several years now and the program should be expanded to the Regents. But it can’t be a zero-sum game. Iowa can and must invest in its state universities with increased state aid while it also works to entice students into areas of workforce shortages with scholarships and other incentives. That’s the only way it will work.

Otherwise, the Legislature’s Republican majority will continue to put higher education out of reach for many more Iowans and erode the quality of the institutions, making the state’s workforce crisis even worse.

Iowa Capital Dispatch is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Iowa Capital Dispatch maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kathie Obradovich for questions: Follow Iowa Capital Dispatch on Facebook and Twitter.

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