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Fees climb at Iowa universities

University of Iowa

University of Iowa

Parents, students shell out hundreds of extra dollars as Iowa public university fees rise an average of 73% over decade

Students at Iowa’s three public universities and their parents have suffered sticker shock year after year as tuition and other college costs have soared. Among the costs are mandatory fees, which have quietly added an average of $1,100 a year to each student’s annual bill, a Des Moines Register investigation has found.

That’s an average increase of 73 percent over the past 10 years in required fees for all students, outpacing the 53 percent average increase in tuition at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa.

The increases in mandatory fees are among the reasons the average Iowa public university student graduates with $28,108 in student loans, the third-highest in the nation. Some wonder whether the fees are a way to raise college costs without increasing tuition.

“It’s not something they’re real straightforward with,” said parent Kelly Brennan, 46, of Grinnell.

“The tuition itself wasn’t a surprise, but those little extras added up pretty quickly,” she said of the additional charges on her son’s University of Iowa bill in August.

She said she and her son, Cole Tokle, 21, expect to borrow more than $40,000 by the time he graduates next year.

The majority of fees fall into two categories: technology — where most money goes toward salaries for staff who maintain equipment, software and wireless access — and recreation centers, with amenities ranging from climbing walls to elliptical machines to hot tubs, viewed as attractive to recruiting and retaining students.

This school year, all undergraduate and graduate students at Iowa’s three universities will pay mandatory fees that total $89 million. The average of $1,100 per student comes on top of the average $6,500 in tuition charged to Iowa residents.

A key factor driving costs: Technology
Technology fees have raced upward at the U of I to $463, about twice as much as at ISU and UNI.

As a result, students in Iowa City this year will shell out about $300 more in total mandatory fees than those enrolled at ISU, and nearly $400 more than those at UNI. The total tabs: U of I, $1,379; ISU, $1,077.60; and UNI $987.

And for specific student groups, the increases have been even higher. A $3 fee pays for a party for seniors at ISU, and each university charges freshmen more than $200 for weekend orientation programs.

University officials, conscious of concerns about college affordability and student debt, said they plan in October to propose a simplified fee structure to make costs more transparent and easier to understand. The move, they stressed, will not decrease the amount of fees paid.

The intent is to eliminate surprises when bills arrive, said Iowa Board of Regents officials, who are charged with overseeing the state-run universities. Currently, there’s no single, easy-to-find way for families to learn all the fees that students must pay over the course of a college career.

“We’re concerned about fees, because when you talk to parents, that’s the one thing that comes up. Parents say, ‘I thought we had to pay tuition, but then all at once I get this fee and that fee, to use for this and that,’ ” said Regents President Craig Lang.

The proposed change comes at a time when the rising cost of college has gained increased scrutiny. The issue has been discussed at Senate hearings and by presidential candidates.

Fees seen as way around tuition hikes
Student fees have long been a source of debate on college campuses. In the 1990s, the issue fueled culture wars because fees were used to fund student groups that backed issues such as abortion and gay rights. One case involving the University of Wisconsin reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000.

In recent years, opposition has focused more on dollars and cents, as state government and family budgets have been squeezed during the economic recession. Students and governing boards at public universities in Ohio, Oregon and Michigan have rejected proposed fee increases for construction and building renovations.

Greater scrutiny of all college costs, including fees, will continue as long as the economy flounders, said Jonathan Robe, a research fellow at the Center for College Affordability and Productivity in Washington, D.C.

Universities can use fees as a way to raise revenue with less public scrutiny than tuition increases receive, or as a way around tuition caps instituted by legislatures in states such as Ohio, he said.

For the 2011-12 school year, Iowa’s universities publicized a 5 percent tuition increase for Iowa students. But at ISU, for example, combined tuition and fees increased 7 percent. The year before, average tuition costs increased 6 percent. But at the U of I, tuition and fees combined jumped nearly 9 percent.

“Public universities know they’ll suffer some sort of negative public perception for tuition increases, and they can avoid that by minimizing tuition increases if they can increase student fees,” Robe said.

Comparing fees between institutions is difficult because each school has different policies on what counts as a fee. A review of total tuition and fees shows the U of I and ISU charge less than public research universities in Illinois, Minnesota, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, Texas, California and Arizona, but more than those in North Carolina. Fees at UNI are cheaper than those at smaller public universities in Illinois, Minnesota, Indiana, Wisconsin and elsewhere, but more expensive than those in North Carolina and California.

Price differences concern regents
Iowa’s three public universities each take distinct approaches to fees.

ISU this year did not increase mandatory fees, paid by students to cover the cost of services such as campus buses and the student union. ISU President Steven Leath on Friday pledged not to raise fees in 2013-14 during a speech at a ceremony that officially installed him as the university’s 15th president.

UNI administrators, in contrast, have initiated discussions with student leaders about a proposal to increase student fees for athletics by $25 each year from 2014 to 2020.

In addition to higher technology fees, the U of I levies two fees not charged at ISU or UNI: A $26 career services fee, which subsidizes the Pomerantz Career Center, a centralized job counseling hub, and a $24 arts and cultural events fee that pays for free or reduced admission to performing arts productions.

U of I President Sally Mason said those fees are essential to providing a well-rounded education and helping students find a job or gain entrance to a graduate school.

The differences in mandatory fees among the universities concern regents leaders. Lang, the regents president, said he thinks the board should make sure one university does not charge a lot more than the others.

“This is a topic where there are a lot of unanswered questions,” Lang said. “We ought to have some kind of equalization within the regents system, where one doesn’t have a practice that’s greatly different than the other ones.”

Regent Bob Downer of Iowa City said he met in August with vice presidents from each university to discuss standardizing some fees, a change that will be proposed in October. Though the changes wouldn’t decrease students’ bills, the bills would be easier to understand, he said.

“It has seemed to me that our student fee structure has been excessively complicated,” Downer said. “It would be virtually impossible for a student to get his or her arms around that and have any comprehensive view of it.”

Folding some fees into tuition could simplify bills, acknowledged Nic Pottebaum, U of I student body president. But the change would eliminate a positive to the fee system: “We can know specifically where the money is going,” he said.

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