Monday, May 19, 2014

A tuition freeze is not enough

Iowa college students need cost reduction, not a continuation of the status quo.

During Iowa’s recently completed legislative session, lawmakers in Des Moines once again approved funding for a tuition freeze at Iowa’s state universities through Fiscal Year 2015.

For in-state students, this means exactly what it sounds like. The price of tuition will not change for now. Out-of-state students, however, can expect an increase in their bill, but it will grow more slowly than it otherwise would have.

The tuition freeze is meant to keep costs lower for college students so we don’t launch ourselves and families into crippling debt--or at least to the degree we would have done so without the tuition freeze. 

This is better than nothing, but at some point, we will need more. 

According to data from the Project on Student Debt, 71 percent of graduates from Iowa’s public and private four-year colleges and universities were in debt. On average, they owed just under $30,000 in student loans. As an example of the explosive tuition growth, figures from the University of Iowa Office of the Registrar show that from 2000 to 2013, in-state tuition and fees at the UI grew by roughly 86 percent.

Declining state funding for public higher education are largely to blame for rising tuition at state schools. Institutions couldn’t count on the government for funds, so they turned to students and parents. 

The left-leaning think tank, the Iowa Fiscal Partnership analyzed data from the Iowa Board of Regents, and found that as the state has gone from providing two-thirds of public university funding in 2000 to just one-third in 2012, tuition has risen from a quarter to three-fifths of revenues for the three regent universities.

At the same time, spending is rising at private and public higher education institutions around the country. More and more funds are being devoted to research, teaching, and extraneous expenditures like university hospitals. Community colleges are the only ones spending less.

The Old Capitol sits at the heart of the University of Iowa campus.                                     (Jon Overton/Iowa Peace Network)

But overall, spending is up, and funding from the state and private donors is down. Tuition shoots through the roof to fill the gap.

The booming cost of college attendance obviously poses a major barrier for students from low income backgrounds who want a degree. The time when you could make a decent living with only a high school diploma in a sector like manufacturing is quickly disappearing. 

Growing wage inequality between high and low skill jobs has been an ongoing trend since the 1980s, according to a report by Federal Reserve economists released last year. The Great Recession exacerbated this trend, scrapping mid-level jobs, and replacing them with low wage jobs.

That’s why getting a college degree is so critical. By golly, it’s expensive, but in the long run, it pays for itself.

In 2012, the Pew Research Center calculated the average lifetime payoff of a four-year college education--factoring in the costs of tuition and forgone earnings while attending--amounted to about $550,000 over a high school diploma.

If we, as a society, want to maintain some semblance of equal opportunity, that means ensuring that higher education is affordable. Does $30,000 in debt upon graduation in a bad job market sound affordable to anyone? Because that’s what the typical Iowa college grad has to deal with. 

A tuition freeze maintains the status quo, but that’s hardly a victory when the status quo is keeping millions of Americans out of the middle class.

Jon Overton is the Media Editor of Iowa Peace Network and an undergraduate at the University of Iowa studying Ethics & Public Policy and Sociology. He also writes for The Daily Iowan.

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