Breaking down tuition set-asides

Quad-City Times graphic

DES MOINES — Students will receive more information about how their tuition dollars are spent under a policy change up for consideration by the Iowa Board of Regents at a meeting Wednesday.

The move comes after a few House Republicans, including the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, began asking questions about the policy of tuition set-asides at the three regent universities.

Under the policy, the universities set aside a portion of students’ tuition for scholarships and financial aid to other students. The set-aside money goes to need-based and non-need-based aid for both in-state and out-of-state students.

The policy has been in place for all three universities since 1989. During that time, hundreds of millions of dollars have been diverted from the general tuition of some students to underwrite the education of others. In 2004, the board required a 15 percent minimum set-aside amount.

In undergraduate programs, the set-aside program is administered and distributed by the financial aid office of each university. At the graduate level, the set-aside dollars are moved through each college or department according to their priorities.

Those set-asides have happened, some lawmakers contend, largely under the radar of the students and parents who pay them.

“We’ve been doing this since ’89, and it’s moved from 13 percent of tuition dollars to 22 percent, and I’ll bet the vast majority of the parents and the kids that are paying these tuition dollars — that are going into debt — don’t know that this is happening,” said Rep. Jeff Kaufmann, R-Wilton, speaker pro tempore of the House. “My main concern is not necessarily the policy. I don’t know if this is good policy or not. My main concern is that nobody knows that this is happening.”

Board of Regents Executive Director Robert Donley said the information is available, and he thinks the regent institutions are “very transparent” already.

He pointed out that tuition set-aside is part of the policy book at all universities and the information is shared during Board of Regents meetings during discussions of tuition and fee proposals.

Still, Donley has scheduled a presentation for the benefit of the board on the tuition set-aside program for this week’s meeting. He’s also recommending a policy change that requires regent universities to provide each student with information on the amount of set-aside set for each fiscal year either on their tuition bill or their tuition receipt.

Rep. Scott Raecker, R-Urbandale, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said he’s waiting to see what the board does with the proposal before making further decisions on the policy itself.

“The most pressing issue was the public disclosure of the information of the program,” Raecker said. “I think we all want to have as much disclosure as necessary in the public arena as possible. I think for those who are paying tuition at our institutions, it would be a valuable piece of information that they should have.”

Raecker said he has met with Donley and thought Donley was receptive to the idea of “more proactive disclosure.” The program is also not unique to Iowa; state systems in Nebraska, Nevada, Arizona, Florida and Indiana have set-aside programs.

Asked if he thought that including information about the set-aside on tuition bills might cause parents to be more skeptical of tuition increases, Donley said it was a hypothetical question that he wasn’t prepared to answer.

“Tuition at Iowa’s public universities is a bargain,” he said.