- Associated Press - Thursday, June 9, 2016

AMES, Iowa (AP) - Breaking with Gov. Terry Branstad, the head of the board that governs Iowa’s public universities backed a last-minute tuition increase Thursday that would affect tens of thousands of students this fall.

Bruce Rastetter, the Board of Regents’ president, said he would support a $300, 4.4 percent increase for resident undergraduate students at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa. Students at the University of Iowa in business and engineering schools and students from other states would face steeper increases.

The plan comes weeks after lawmakers provided about $14 million less in funding than the universities requested for their general operating budgets. It would more than offset that by generating $21.2 million in new revenue.

Regents discussed the plan during a meeting in Ames and are expected to vote on it next month.

Student leaders from Iowa State and UNI told the board they would reluctantly support the increase even while warning about the impact it would have on cash-strapped students and families. Student leaders from the University of Iowa floated what they called a compromise that would reduce the increases to $200 for all students on that campus.

The governor said last week that he believed the increase was too much and called on his appointees on the nine-member board to carefully consider the impact it would have on students and families. Branstad noted it would come just weeks before the school year begins, a point reiterated by student leaders Thursday.

“How are students expected to plan for the future and budget their money when they are hit with a tuition increase a few weeks before they get their first bill?” UI student body president Rachel Zuckerman said.

Rastetter said Thursday that he wasn’t happy to be discussing proposed increases, but that he believed they were necessary to maintain educational quality.

He suggested that the three universities have even greater needs today than they did when they requested $20 million increase from lawmakers last year. He said UNI has longstanding budget challenges, Iowa State is facing a booming enrollment and the University of Iowa is struggling to retain faculty and improve programs.

“We have a responsibility to make sure the quality of these institutions does not go backward,” Rastetter said.

A split is unusual between Branstad and Rastetter, who is one of the governor’s top campaign donors. Branstad spokesman Ben Hammes downplayed the rift, noting that the board is an independent body that sets tuition rates.

“Governor Branstad understands the regents have to balance the needs of universities and hopes that any increase in student tuition would be modest and minimal to lessen the financial impact on students and their families,” he said.

Regent Larry McKibben, of Marshalltown, said the proposal was the hardest decision he’s faced in his 2 ½ years on the board and that he had yet to make up his mind.

“The next few weeks are going to be painful,” he said. “I have a lot to think about.”

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