Iowa State, Sen. Tom Harkin provide input at forum on national college affordability

Brian Voss

An open forum was hosted at the University of Northern Iowa on the topic of college affordability. This was only one of four on college campuses nationwide.

The goal of the open forum, put on by the U.S. Department of Education, was to receive input on President Barack Obama’s plan for higher education funding, expected to be in use by the 2015-16 school year. 

Roberta Johnson, director of financial aid at Iowa State and representative at the forum, said state funding for Iowa State has dropped dramatically in the last several decades.

“In 1981, the general education funding for our regent institutions was 77.4 percent of our budget,” Johnson said. “In 2013, this now represents only 35 percent of our budget.”

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, also expressed his concerns with the drop in state funding for higher education.

“[State legislatures] have figured out, ‘Aha, we’ll cut our state funding for Iowa State. … Our Regents, we’ll cut those. And guess what? The schools will then have increased tuition, and then guess what? The federal government will come in and give more aid to students. So we’ll dump it all on the federal government,’” Harkin said.

Harkin said that when state legislatures gave more funding to schools, student debt was not as much of an issue.

“In the last, I don’t know, 20 years … college tuition has [gone up] 250 percent; family incomes have only gone up 16 percent,” Harkin said.

Johnson said ISU students are currently graduating with an average of $30,000 in debt.

She also touched on funding from the state of Iowa and its effectiveness. She said the funding for the Iowa Grant program is decreasing.

“In 2002-03, we received an allocation of $147,343 in that program. A decade later we’re at $124,171, and maximum grant for that is $1,000, so I serve 120 equal students with that,” Johnson said.

Concerns were expressed about the potential ranking system which would determine how much federal funding colleges receive. Gabby Williams, speaker of the Government of the Student Body Senate at Iowa State, said there is much more to be considered in rankings than what happens in the classroom.

“We have tons of clubs; we have our student body government; we have just a plethora of things at our schools,” Williams said.

Harkin said he is unsure how all departments within colleges can be ranked effectively.

“How do you rate a college on the performance of their philosophy department?” Harkin said.

He also said community colleges must be an integral part of the ratings system.

Williams expressed concerns about a rating system that would require students to complete a certain percentage of studies before they receive funding.

“A lot of students, especially at Iowa State University, are in the engineering programs and are in STEM programs and architecture. These majors take five years at least,” Williams said.

Williams also said similar concerns lie for students who start college and do not know exactly what they want to do, resulting in changing majors one or more times.

Common themes throughout the forum included questions and concerns about rating colleges in part based on earnings of alumni, especially from students and faculty from Northern Iowa.

“Teachers do not earn as much as income as many other professionals,” said Victoria Hurst, director of governmental relations for the UNI Student Government.

More information can be found at Those wishing to share their thoughts on the proposal can do so at [email protected].