Recently, the Iowa State Senate passed a $989 million education budget for fiscal year 2015. The bill increases funding for the state’s regent universities, community colleges, and it also funds some of Governor Branstad’s education reform initiatives.
A similar bill is likely to pass the Republican controlled House of Representatives later this week. Ultimately the legislation will be approved and be signed into law by the Governor. The most notable or newsworthy portion of this bill is that it will once again allow Iowa’s regent universities to freeze tuition.
It is somewhat remarkable that at a time when partisanship seems to be at an all time high in Iowa and across the country, Iowa’s nine-member bi-partisan Board of Regents can work with a divided legislature to keep college tuition at the state’s three public universities flat for two consecutive years. As Iowa has found a way to freeze tuition at its public universities, other public universities around the country are seeing a three percent yearly increases in tuition.
The Board of Regents, Governor Branstad, and the legislature should all be commended for this accomplishment. Yet, while the regent schools are freezing tuition, the costs of tuition at the state’s community colleges continue to go up. This is happening despite the fact that community colleges have received a 13 percent increase in state funding over the past two years, including a nine percent increase in fiscal year 2014, and a four percent increase in fiscal year 2015.
The state’s three public universities were able to freeze tuition in fiscal year 2014 despite the fact that there was no additional funding from the state, and in fiscal year 2015, Iowa’s regent schools are only getting a four percent funding increase. It’s obvious that Iowa’s public universities have figured out how to do more with less, so why can’t our community colleges?
Nobody disputes the important roll that community colleges play in educating students or re-educating workers who are looking to embark on a new career path, but it’s time for the state’s community colleges to also look for cost-saving opportunities. This is especially important considering that enrollment at Iowa’s 15 community colleges dropped by 6.3 percent last year.
Enrollment has dropped at all but four of the state’s community colleges, but it’s also worth noting that almost 30 percent of the students enrolled in community colleges across Iowa are actually high school students. In 2013, 27,297 high school students participated in a joint enrollment program that allows them to earn college credits while still in high school.
Despite falling enrollment and high school students making up a significant percentage of the total enrollment at community colleges, tuition and fees are on the rise. From the 2012-2013 school year to the 2013-2014 school year, tuition and fees have increased on average by 2.7 percent at Iowa’s community colleges, while it have only increased by 0.23 percent at Iowa’s public universities.
According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, tuition at Iowa’s community colleges has increased 32 percent from fiscal year 2005 to fiscal year 2012. While that’s significantly lower than the national average of 43 percent, tuition and fees at Iowa community colleges are higher than all of the neighboring states except for Minnesota.
While community colleges are increasing tuition rates and seeking additional funding from state government, collectively the state’s 15 community colleges have unexpended funds that total over $120 million. The healthy ending balance begs the question – why should student be asked to pay higher tuition rates every year when schools still have millions of dollars remaining in their coffers at the end of the year?
It’s not only students that should question the increased funding for community colleges, but also taxpayers. Community colleges have four main funding sources – property taxes, student tuition and fees, state aid, and federal aid. What is the justification for increased state aid when community colleges have a significant ending balance at the end of each fiscal year?
A legislative study committee report from January of this year indicated that community colleges added staff as enrollment increased, but since enrollment numbers have decreased in recent years, community colleges are now beginning to reduce staff. As student tuition has become the primary funding source for community colleges, yearly budgeting has become more difficult for community colleges because it’s hard to predict enrollment figures from year to year.
Those realities make it even more necessary for Iowa’s community colleges to follow the lead of the Iowa’s regent universities and begin looking for cost-savings. The Iowa Board of Regents recently embarked on an efficiency audit of each department in Iowa’s three public universities. The goal isn’t to strip funding away from these institutions, but to make sure those dollars are being spent wisely.
The Regent’s audit is an extensive review of both academic and administrative expenses. The entire system is under review, and it only seems natural that the same steps be taken as far as the states community colleges are concerned.
While the Iowa House has yet to pass the education budget, it is far too late in the process to make additional funding contingent on reforms. However, it is never too early to start thinking about steps that can be taken next year. If they are wise, the community colleges would start taking steps toward an efficiency audit of their own. Community colleges play a critical role in the local and state economies, but it may be time to strengthen and reinvent them for the future.
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