Editorial: Step aside, set-asides



Editorial Board

Every once in a while a bone gets thrown our way. Last week, the Board of Regents voted to eliminate scholarships funded by your tuition dollars.

If you’re just joining the ball game, they call this “tuition set-aside.” Essentially, under Regents direction, Iowa State takes 23.5 percent of your tuition and puts it in a scholarship pool, from which the tuition of other students is paid. The Board of Regents mandates its schools take at least 15 percent for set-asides because, in their defense, the state of Iowa lacks an adequate scholarship program.

The vote to eliminate set-asides raises all sorts of questions; the main one among them is: What will be the effect on students?

That set-asides exist isn’t exactly the problem, though. What invokes the ire of most is the sheer amount of money taken. If the percentage isn’t bad enough, however, it was discovered students from wealthier families received an average award of about $1,000 more than students who were qualified only for need-based scholarships.

But no longer. Responding to public pressure, the tuition set-aside program will be phased out within five years.

If the Board of Regents and Iowa Legislature want to get serious about making Iowa a state that leads the country, they should make it an attractive place to spend four years getting an education. Part of making higher education in Iowa accessible is making it affordable.

The Regents plan to work with the Legislature to fund need-based scholarships. Right now, the numbers being kicked around in Des Moines range between $25 million and $40 million for the new allocation. That’s certainly a big number and requires a lot of discussion, but in a state with hundreds of millions of dollars sitting in surplus right now, any figure within that range ought to be doable. Educating Iowa’s and America’s citizens certainly seems just as important and essential, and perhaps more so, as paving roads after all.

With respect to merit-based scholarships, one proposal is to use the Regents universities’ private fund raising foundations to provide the merit-based scholarships to academically accomplished students. Considering our very own ISU Foundation has raised nearly $1 billion dollars in just the last few years — that’s billion with a “b” mind you — we can be confident that a few dozen million dollars for the scholarship pool is attainable. In fact, there’s no limit to how much money the foundation can raise for us. Imagine 50-percent-tuition scholarships for everyone someday…

The fair result of eliminating set-asides is a reduction in tuition equal to the amount given by the universities to other students. Decreasing tuition by 23.5 percent as well as continuing to provide scholarships based on both need and merit would make Iowa State an immensely affordable — not to mention exceptionally competitive — university.

Alternatively, failing a 23.5 percent reduction in tuition, the Regents universities could solve their budget woes by plowing the $150 million currently raised by set-asides into hiring new professors to teach students in smaller class sizes and on new facilities in which to teach those students. Departments would no longer suffer, shrink or disappear; in fact, we could afford to restore valuable programs and revitalize our focus on the long lost liberal education side of our land-grant mandate.

Whatever the Board of Regents decides, whether to cut 23.5 percent from your U-bill or just keep the money and roll it into education funding, students and taxpayers need to stay on top of this issue. What’s next then? 

Call Board of Regents Presidents Craig Lang and Bruce Rastetter at 515-281-3934 and ask.