- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 1, 2017

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - After facing lawsuits and days of criticism from students and parents, the University of Iowa on Wednesday backed off a plan to eliminate scholarships promised to thousands of current and incoming students.

UI President Bruce Harreld announced that he had reinstated the Iowa Heritage Award and four other smaller scholarship programs previously promised to current students and those who start next fall.

He had informed 3,071 students last week that he was eliminating their awards, citing “devastating” funding cuts approved by lawmakers and Gov. Terry Branstad to help balance the state budget. But the decision had been met with criticism from lawmakers, who accused the university of playing politics, and from parents, alumni and students.

The mid-year cuts roiling Iowa come as state funding for public higher education continues to be tight across the country. Most states reported modest increases during the current budget year but 10 had funding cuts, according to an annual survey released last month.

The Heritage scholarships, created in 2014 to recruit more students to Iowa, promised an automatic $1,500 annual tuition discount to the children and grandchildren of alumni for four years of undergraduate studies. Many students said they came to Iowa instead of other schools due to the awards, which only required they keep a 2.0 grade point average.

Harreld said he heard concerns from many students and parents who feared financial hardships if the scholarships were eliminated, even though they were not need-based. He said continuing them won’t be easy while absorbing a $9.2 million funding cut and that he would work with state leaders “to establish predictable tuition revenue increases and state support moving forward.”

Students had filed two proposed class-action lawsuits claiming that the university’s cuts violated their constitutional rights and amounted to a breach of contract. They reacted to the news with delight.

“I really appreciate the university’s quick turnaround in reinstating the scholarships,” said sophomore Jenna Pokorny, a student who sued Tuesday and had been slated to lose $6,000 in awards over her final two years as an undergraduate. “I’m relieved that I don’t have to have this financial burden placed upon me and relieved that other students will not have to deal with the fallout of having thousands of dollars of scholarships taken away from them.”

Jon Muller, the parent of another student who sued, said the public outcry “helped the President’s office realize it had made a terrible mistake.”

Harreld said the programs would be eliminated for new students beginning in 2018, and the university would prioritize other need-based and merit-based awards.

The university will now look for other ways to find $4.4 million in savings that the scholarship cuts would have generated, school spokeswoman Jeneane Beck said.

Outgoing Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter said reinstating the scholarships “places the University of Iowa in a very difficult financial situation.” He warned that the board would bring the university’s below-average tuition rates “in line with its national peer group” if lawmakers do not adequately invest in the university, which is starting a five-year strategic plan. That could mean major hikes in coming years.

Iowa’s tuition and mandatory fees for in-state students currently rank at the bottom of an 11-member group of universities that it considers peers: $8,575 this academic year compared to an average of $11,581.

Senate Minority Leader Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, praised the decision to reinstate the scholarships.

“Now Iowans should speak up and tell Republican legislators to support higher education so we can have world-class universities that are affordable to Iowa families,” he said.

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