As Branstad and Hatch square off, debt-burdened students are left scratching their heads

The race is on!
Gov. Terry Branstad and challenger Jack Hatch square off on Nov 4. — Illustration by Mark Vollenweider

When Gov. Terry Branstad enrolled in the University of Iowa in the ’60s, tuition was just $340.

Today, in-state students and their families shell a bare minimum of about $8,000 for tuition and fees over the course of a year, despite a tuition freeze that Branstad pushed legislators to fund this past session. And even though Iowa students are racking up more debt than almost anywhere else in the country, college affordability has so far not floated to the top of this year’s gubernatorial contest between Branstad and Democrat challenger Jack Hatch.

This fall’s elections come amid local concern over the University of Iowa’s funding from the state. The school now receives more funding from the state government than either of the other two state universities—some $230 million in this year’s budget, compared to less than $200 million at Iowa State, and less than $100 million at Northern Iowa. A new funding model, though, could straighten out that imbalance. The plan approved by the Iowa Board of Regents earlier this year would put a heavier emphasis on educating in-state students, potentially tightening UI’s funding stream since it educates a higher portion of out-of-state students than ISU and UNI.

To cope, UI leaders are planning heavier recruitment of Iowa high schoolers. And they’ve also set out to prove the university’s worth to constituents across Iowa, launching the “University for IOWA” campaign this summer, meant to “illustrate the ways that UI serves our state.”

The university also appears to be refocusing on economic development, with leaders announcing in August they were beefing up the school’s economic development office with a few staff changes: “It is clear that Iowa’s public universities must work not only to educate the future workforce, but do all they can to ensure there are good jobs at thriving companies waiting when they graduate, and that faculty and student innovators have adequate support to translate great ideas into products and businesses,” UI President Sally Mason said in a press release.

Even if Iowa colleges remain a bargain compared to other big universities—in-state tuition at UI ranks the second-lowest among schools in the Big Ten, for instance—students here are still managing to accrue plenty of debt: About three-fourths of graduates from Iowa colleges and universities have debt, an average of about $30,000 each, according to U.S. Department of Education data. That’s one of the highest marks of any state in the country and a few thousand above the national average.

Iowa students’ increasing debt totals are fueled by public college tuition rates that inched up each year until recently; four-year graduation rates below 50 percent at most Iowa colleges; and periods of below-average income growth in the state. Those debt loads are also a product of a national student borrowing frenzy in recent years: In 2001, the federal government doled out almost $50 billion in higher education loans, compared to over $100 billion a decade later in 2011, according to a 2012 report by the College Board.

Branstad has acknowledged the issue and pushed for tuition freezes the last two years, while Hatch calls student debt a “drag on the economy” and also supported the tuition freezes. But long-term plans for keeping tuition and debt in check seem sparse on the campaign trail, aside from vague ideas about curricular flexibility and collaborating between secondary schools and colleges.

“[Community colleges] are working with local school districts in offering courses, higher level math and science and vocational courses and they’re doing it in conjunction. … We have something where you can dual enroll and get college credit in high school,” Branstad said at the first debate.

But even if Iowa grads are strapped with debt, at least they enter a state economy that even challenger Hatch admits is “going well.” Unemployment in July was just 4.5 percent, below the national rate of 6.2 percent and Iowa’s metro areas consistently earn high marks for their job markets. Just a couple weeks ago, Forbes called Des Moines the best American city for young professionals.

Branstad says he can sustain the favorable economy through his economic development strategy, characterized by a series of tax relief packages that have drawn ire from critics. Hatch, a real estate developer, is no enemy of economic development incentives, but he also says the state’s economy needs a boost from a minimum wage hike—potentially a boon for working students and other low-wage young people.

“By bringing it up to $10.10, you create thousands of new opportunities for people, and they no longer have to depend on public assistance,” Hatch said during the August debate.

A handful of polls over the summer gave Branstad a double-digit lead over Hatch. Branstad has a very comfortable fundraising lead as well, reporting more than $4 million on hand in mid-July, compared to some $180,000 for Hatch. A win in November would make Branstad one of the winningest politicians in American history—undefeated over six gubernatorial contests.

“We have only just begun. We have a lot more to accomplish,” Branstad said at the debate last month.

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