CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — Iowa Regent Larry McKibben made clear from the outset of the tuition task force’s first meeting that members are looking to be change agents.

“We’re going to find changes and find things that are more efficient and better that improve all three of our universities,” said McKibben, who chairs the panel.

He added, “This isn’t going to happen overnight. … This is a long-term project to change how we function in the state of Iowa, because we owe to the citizens of the state of Iowa the kind of quality that we got when we went through school.”

The task force, created by the Board of Regents in June, didn’t offer specifics about plans for change, and that isn’t the point of the campus meetings that kicked off at the University of Northern Iowa on Monday.

It was to get campus input, starting with one of the most important voices — students who are most affected by rising tuition.

Cade Olmstead, a Northern Iowa student government leader, was the lone student to offer input. The fall session doesn’t start for another two weeks.

“I appreciate your statement about how we need to be agents of change,” Olmstead said. “I think as a student, it’s time that we as a state start recognizing education as a public good, as it once was.”

The meeting began with a look at how the university system compares nationally and a five-year budget outlook from Northern Iowa President Mark Nook.

The data showed Iowa’s tuition increases and fees are among the lowest in the nation, but Iowa ranks worst in terms of state need-based financial aid to students.

Tim Bakula, interim director of financial aid at Northern Iowa, told the task force about the success state universities have had reducing student debt, particularly through the “live like a student” program. But he cautioned against putting the whole burden of affordability on universities.

“I don’t want this to seem like our universities — Iowa, Iowa State, and UNI — are going to find a way to have predictable tuition and there’s nothing that the state needs to do anymore,” Bakula said. “I think that discussion still needs to come up.”

State Sen. Jeff Danielson, D-Waterloo, who is Northern Iowa alumni, told the board he welcomed the conversation. He suggested regents continue to look for efficiencies and reduce redundancies. He also endorsed having different tuition rates at each university.

“What has been supposedly fair for UNI in previous years, because it was kind of equal across the regents universities, was really not fair,” Danielson said. "It was not a way for us to get the resources that we need."

Nook did not endorse any particular idea, other than arguing against further state cuts that would cause dramatic tuition increases, but he said he was open to different rates.

Nook noted that if Iowa and Iowa State increased tuition to the median in their peer groups — now both are at the bottom — and Northern Iowa increased to the same rate, Northern Iowa would be among the highest in its peer cohort.

“I think Iowa and Iowa State need to have a conversation about what their tuition is, and if it needs to go up significantly, it should go up so that they have the revenues to deliver on their mission,” Nook said. “If we followed suit and keep our price point the same, we will price ourselves out of the market, and we will cripple our enrollment.”

The next tuition task force meeting will begin at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday at Iowa State University. It will be streamed live at iowaregents.edu. Those who cannot attend the meetings can provide input at iowaregents.edu/plans-and-policies/tuition-task-force.

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