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EDITORIAL: Filling the tuition set-aside gap

CR Gazette – The Gazette Editorial Board –

Regents were right last week to approving phasing out tuition set-aside that has helped fund student aid at Iowa’s state universities. In a time of ever-higher education costs, the move was fair and could even provide welcome relief to Iowa students and their families.

Since 2004, colleges and universities have used at least 15 percent of tuition revenue to offer attractive aid packages to high-achieving students, or to help subsidize the education of other students who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford it.

Recently, state legislators have clamored for an end to the practice, saying it’s unfair for some students to have to foot the bill for their peers. They got their wish last week with Regents’ vote. Now, they need to help address the need those funds formerly filled.

Regents plan to create a committee to plan a phaseout over the next five years the use of tuition revenues for student aid. Right now, a little more than 20 percent of tuition paid to Iowa’s Regents universities is diverted for need-based and merit-based aid for undergraduate, graduate and professional students.

Regents hope eliminating the set-aside will lead to lower in-state tuition across the board. But that won’t be enough on its own to make sure tuition is affordable for students who meet college entrance standards but are financially needy.

And it likely won’t be enough, either, to entice Iowa’s best and brightest to stay here and continue their studies rather than choosing attractive offers from out-of-state rivals.

Already, there has been talk of asking foundations that help support Iowa State University, The University of Iowa and University of Northern Iowa to boost their financial support for students to help bridge the gap.

But that’s a tall order. In fiscal year 2011 alone, tuition set-asides funded more than $144 million in aid to 25,583 undergraduate students.

And while the universities’ foundations have a key role to play, it’s legislators who bear primary responsibility for making sure a state education is financially feasible for the state’s students. They should fill the gap for needs-based scholarship they helped create by calling for the end of the set-aside.

It’s more manageable, and makes more sense, to ask university foundations to find ways to cover merit scholarships — those awards that help keep high-achieving students in our state.

Merit awards have gotten a bad rap in aid conversations of late, with some saying it’s unnecessary and unfair to use tuition money, or any public money, to entice our brightest students to study at home.

But keeping those top students is good for the learning environment and boosts our schools’ reputations. Finding money for merit awards is job enough for our higher ed foundations.

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