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Iowa regents vote to freeze tuition _ for now

Ryan j. Foley, Associated Press

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) -- The governing board of Iowa's public universities voted Wednesday not to raise tuition rates for in-state undergraduate students next school year, gambling that lawmakers will approve enough new funding to continue operating without cuts.

The tuition freeze is the first since 1982 in Iowa, where graduates carry some of the nation's highest student debt loads. The Board of Regents unanimously approved the plan without discussion during a phone meeting.

But the plan is contingent on the Legislature approving a 2.6 percent funding increase to maintain operations at the University of Northern Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Iowa, which is by no means guaranteed.

Board members have warned they may raise tuition in the spring if the Legislature does not come through — a potential public relations fiasco that could create problems for already-enrolled students and finger-pointing over who was to blame. But Board President Pro Tem Bruce Rastetter said he doubted that would be necessary.

"We feel very confident that we will gain that support and we will be able to hold the tuition freeze at a zero level," he told reporters.

The plan keeps base tuition at $6,678 at Iowa and $6,648 at Iowa State and Northern Iowa. It would raise tuition by less than 3 percent for out-of-state undergraduates, generating $9.3 million in new revenue. Graduate and professional students would also see increases that would bring in an extra $4.5 million.

Legislative leaders say it's too soon to say how the proposal to boost spending by roughly $40 million will fare. While Iowa has a budget surplus, the governor and lawmakers face no shortage of plans to spend the money and uncertainty over possible federal budget cuts. Costly plans to cut taxes on commercial and industrial property and to reform K-12 education will be considered.

The regents are also asking lawmakers to create a separate $40 million financial aid program for low-income college students to phase out an unpopular tuition subsidy.

But even Gov. Terry Branstad, who works closely with the Republicans who lead the regents, has not endorsed the funding to enable the tuition freeze.

"The governor needs to look at the budget in its entirety before determining what resources will go where," Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht said.

The idea of setting tuition rates based on an expected funding level from the Legislature is new. Typically, the regents have set tuition rates in the fall for the coming school year, often partly based on funding levels approved the prior year from lawmakers. Last year, regents raised tuition rates by 3.75 percent for the current school year and then successfully lobbied the Legislature for a $23 million funding increase, its first after years of deep cuts.

University officials say the freeze is possible because inflation in higher education is expected to be low and they have grown adept at managing tight budgets. They express hope that lawmakers will respond positively to their funding request if they explain it will be used to freeze tuition.

House Speaker Kraig Paulsen, R-Hiawatha, said the tuition freeze plan "appears to be a thoughtful proposal" that will be taken seriously. He said no state agency should count on a funding increase — but that Iowa's public universities "are probably a little closer to the front of the line" for funding than many other groups.

"I think we need to all be fighting for making sure that we keep tuition increases at a minimum. I think zero is a great goal for the upcoming year," he said. "I see the regents as doing their job and providing some leadership and I appreciate that."

Sen. Brian Schoenjahn, D-Arlington and chairman of the Senate education appropriations committee, praised the regents for a transparent approach, saying lawmakers will appreciate knowing in advance how their actions might affect tuition rates. He said it would be great to freeze tuition to help middle-class families, but warned that lawmakers would not be able to fully fund every request they receive.

"The student debt out there is horrible," he said. "We do not want to force young talent out of a higher education because they can't afford it. That's extremely counterproductive."