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Iowa private university leaders, advocates wary of potential changes to state tuition grants

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Iowa private university leaders, advocates wary of potential changes to state tuition grants

Dec 07, 2023 | 8:53 pm ET
By Brooklyn Draisey
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Iowa private university leaders, advocates wary of potential changes to state tuition grants
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Potential legislative changes to the Iowa Tuition Grant program have private university leaders expressing concern. (Photo by Kathie Obradovich/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Iowa has seen state support erode for public universities. Officials with Iowa’s private colleges fear, based on conversations with some Republican lawmakers, that their liberal-arts students could be the next target for cuts.

The Iowa Tuition Grant program is the primary way that state dollars help support Iowa’s independent colleges and universities. Now, however, discussions with key legislators surrounding the program and changes that could be made in the future have caused concerns for leaders in the state’s private university sector.

Iowa Tuition Grants are are need-based allocations awarded to Iowa residents attending one of the state’s private universities to earn an associate or bachelor’s degree. Grants can be provided for up to four years of study.

The amount one receives depends on the average Regent tuition and fee rate, and can vary depending on the amount of available funding and number of recipients. The maximum amount given in the 2023-2024 school year was $7,500, according to Iowa College Aid. Iowa Association of Independent Colleges and Universities President Gary Steinke said the program is funded at about $52 million.

Steinke said Iowa Rep. Carter Nordman had multiple conversations with him regarding the grant program. Nordman also spoke about the program at the Greater Des Moines Partnership recently, saying members of his caucus have brought up concerns about it and whether recipients were pursuing majors in high-need careers. Members of the partnership reached out to Steinke to ask if he was aware of what Nordman was discussing.

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The main change that has been mentioned to university officials is to redirect grants in the program to majors related to “high-need” job areas. The program in its current form has no restrictions on what recipients must study in order to qualify for aid.

It could be modeled after the Iowa Workforce Grant and Incentive Program, which provides grants for eligible students in specific areas of study, based on job demand. Grants can only go to students attending the University of Iowa, University of Northern Iowa or Iowa State University. Meanwhile, the universities have been raising tuition for students as the Legislature has reduced its contribution to institution support.

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Steinke and the private college leaders he’s discussed this with have expressed concerns about the potential changes, worried that they could limit student choice when it comes to deciding whether to study their passion or be able to afford the university they’ve decided to attend. Some schools rely on the program to bring in students who otherwise couldn’t attend.

“(Private colleges’) key mission is to provide a college education to anybody who wants it, regardless of need, and this program, in addition to the $500 million of private money that the colleges themselves raise and spend on financial aid every year, makes it affordable for students in need to go to college,” Steinke said. “And without the Iowa Tuition Grant, they wouldn’t be able to afford to go anywhere.”

Nordman and Steinke reiterated that there are no proposals, bills or other efforts beyond some discussion to move any changes forward.

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Part of the impetus behind the discussion seems to be Republican lawmakers’ concern that college campuses foment liberal attitudes. Campus demonstrations related to the Israel-Hamas war have brought those concerns back to the forefront.

In a previous statement in response to a question about possible actions being taken against Iowa universities with pro-Palestine activities on campus, Nordman said he and others in the Statehouse are “keeping a close eye on the situation in Iowa,” and universities must do everything in their power to make campus safe for everyone and “root out any supporters of terrorism on campus.”

Iowa private university leaders, advocates wary of potential changes to state tuition grants
Iowa Rep. Carter Nordman (Photo via Iowa Legislature)

“There’s absolutely nothing to move forward at this time. We’re going to keep an eye on the situation as far as the rhetoric that’s been happening on some of the universities’ campuses,” Nordman said in an interview about the tuition grant discussion.

“Iowa taxpayers do fund the Iowa Tuition Grant at the tune of $50-plus million, so it’s obviously something that we’re going to keep an eye on, if there needs to be changes we will absolutely have that conversation and it will be a much broader conversation,” Nordman said. “But at this time, there is no  proposal out there. There’s just been some comments made and we’ll have that discussion when the session rolls around.”

College president: Targeting scholarships could leave out important skills

St. Ambrose University President Amy Novak said changes like targeting scholarships to specific majors could stop students from pursuing degrees that, while not labeled as high-need, are still important for curating skills in communication, understanding complex topics, and helping communities thrive.

Areas of study like theology, philosophy and English often lead students to pursue law degrees or other graduate studies, and can help them become spiritual and cultural leaders.

These potential changes could also imply that the state knows better than students and their families when it comes to higher education studies, she said. In the end, those that will be hurt the most by this change will be the students who need these grant funds to further their education.

“We would not want to deter someone from pursuing a degree that helps them think deeply and broadly and also encourages them to address complexity and the skills developed through studying history or philosophy,” Novak said. “Understanding of ethics, as an example, would be core to a philosophy curriculum. We need people educated in those areas, and to suggest we would limit a student’s choice is also really impinging on some of the core principles of the free market.”

This school year, 370 St. Ambrose University students are receiving the Iowa Tuition Grant.

While she knows there haven’t been any efforts to move these changes ahead beyond the conversations that have occurred, Novak said she’s unsure how the state will define high-need degrees and handle situations where students switch degrees or go into college undecided.

She worries that if fewer students pursue degrees that aren’t labeled as high-need, employers who have expressed concerns about lack of certain skills will see the employable pool shrink even further. It will also harm the private universities that benefit from students utilizing grant funds to attend classes.

Both Novak and Steinke expressed cautious optimism that the discussed changes won’t make their way through the Statehouse and actually be implemented, as lawmakers they’ve spoken to have not been supportive of the idea and there has been no discussion of moving ahead. However, they can’t predict what will happen, and are ready to oppose the changes if they are written into legislation.

“I just am deeply worried about what I think might be a short-term idea without well thought through long-term implications for the state,” Novak said.