Enhancing the brain drain

EDITORIAL

BY ART CULLEN

Tuition at Iowa’s two largest public universities will go up 7% a year for five years under proposals put forward by their presidents. When you add in an increase of 5% already approved by the board of regents, the total increase over five years is 41%. That’s stunning. It is unsustainable. It is completely the fault of mismanagement and bad policy by Gov. Terry Branstad, the Iowa Legislature and the regents he appointed. Branstad’s successor, Gov. Kim Reynolds, is content to let the process work out with the regents as the entire state budget is in shambles.

We spoke Wednesday about the mess that is Medicaid reform. Insurance companies are negotiating behind closed doors with the Iowa Department of Human Services. Nobody knows when they might come out. Reynolds is faced with at least a $100 million budget deficit because of a series of tax cuts and ballooning tax credits allowed for corporate cash giveaways. When the negotiations are done over the hundreds of millions of short payments to the three insurance companies managing Medicaid for the state, Reynolds should have to call a special session to douse the fire. She said she is not sure she will. State Treasurer Mike Fitzgerald warns that we had better start thinking of borrowing money to fund operations as Reynolds spends down cash reserves.

Of course, the ones who feel the most pain are workers in Medicaid funded industries like nursing home care or serving mentally handicapped children in group homes. Their very survival is threatened by cash starvation by the government and the insurance industry. Senior citizens with ties to Storm Lake have to find new housing after North Lake Manor closed. These are real consequences.

And so are the tuition increases.

Atop the increases planned for the University of Iowa and Iowa State is a 2.5% tuition increase proposed next year for the University of Northern Iowa. Tuition will rise 3.8% next year at Iowa Central Community College and so will property taxes. The Iowa Tuition Grant program, which provides $5,600 grants to Iowans at Buena Vista University, was cut by the Republican-controlled legislature by 4.7%. It is hard to attract students away from Iowa State to BVU when we keep constraining the tuition grant.

Our students already have among the highest debt loads in the nation upon graduation. And, we offer among the fewest job opportunities anywhere for a college graduate. So of course more than half the graduates of UI and ISU move out of the state to the Twin Cities, Kansas City or Chicago to pay off those student loans. This is especially true of rural areas. It is a self-defeating strategy.

When we were young (yes, we were) you could pay all your costs at a public university with a summer job. Now, you could if your summer job were being CEO of a bank.

Our system is set up for the continual brain drain.

If we made Buena Vista more affordable, more Latinos who want to build Storm Lake would attend. If we didn’t have to fund Iowa Central with property taxes, Storm Lakers would have an easier time affording their own home. If you could go to Iowa State cheap, you could afford to live in Holstein. But if you leave Iowa City with $40,000 in debt, how are you supposed to pay that off with a job teaching English in Newell where enrollment is falling and pay is tight?

You build an economy through education and innovation. You do not do it by pricing people out of the market.

Iowa and Iowa State enjoy record enrollments because our students are smart enough to know that a four-year degree is necessary to be a leader of tomorrow. But most of those people will not be leading in Iowa. And that leaves us trailing.

This state enjoyed its most prosperous years when we married education and community at every level in every region. Now, we allow K-12 public education annual appropriation increases that are half the rate of inflation. Costs are shifted to property taxes and sales taxes, which put the most burden on the working poor.

We must change the dynamic before we become a state of those who are left behind, not those who choose to be here. Rural counties already are showing what the brain drain can do. You lose the innovators and you are left with mature industries constantly consolidating and shoving people off to urban areas. If you can’t make your living with that freshly minted college degree anymore around here, you take your potential innovation someplace else to see how it plays out — especially when the water is polluted, state parks are closing and you can’t even build a bike trail around Storm Lake. That’s what is wrong with Iowa. Gov. Reynolds has not indicated that she has come to grips with it. Gov. Branstad certainly did not.