Save our colleges

EDITORIALS

BY ART CULLEN

Iowa is almost unique for its collection of outstanding private colleges complementing a historically strong state university system. The coronavirus pandemic slammed what was an already struggling higher education sector, which is a huge economic engine for this state. If Congress and the Iowa Legislature do not rush to their aid immediately, we risk losing an education infrastructure built for more than a century with an international reputation.

Colleges across the country were struggling before the pandemic. Small, private colleges in the rural Midwest were hurting the worst. The shutdown last spring made things much worse. Buena Vista University intends to reopen for the fall semester with lots of caveats. Like any other private institution, it sorely needs the dorm rent, tuition and fees. BVU is in a stronger position than most thanks to a large endowment. But you can’t eat your seed for long.

Buena Vista is in the midst of an academic refashioning that seeks to align its programs better with regional student demand. But now everything is mixed up and tentative. Private colleges need a strong pledge of support from Gov. Kim Reynolds, legislative leaders and from our Congressional delegation. Their very existence is at risk.

The Iowa Tuition Grant is stuck at $6,000. When it was created more than 40 years ago the program was supposed to put the out-of-pocket expense of attending a private college on par with that of a state university. It hasn’t come close. It should be twice the size, at least. The returns are immediate in rural communities throughout Iowa, from Waverly to Storm Lake to Mount Pleasant. It is the best way for the state to create economic activity — to recruit bright minds in, in hopes that they want to stay. Most private college graduates remain in the state. Storm Lake was built through the years by the work of Beavers. Des Moines would not be the same without Drake.

Iowa needs to do everything it can to support these vital community institutions. Their graduates are our entrepreneurs, teachers, nurses and bankers. They need our help now.

Often, private and public colleges are pitted in a zero-sum game that cheats both. That’s what has been happening. State universities were told to cater first to resident students, forcing them to poach private college prospects. Attracting rich students from Chicago had been a major revenue source for the University of Iowa. The Board of Regents has been in regression. It was just forced to cut $8 million from the three state universities. That means that Iowa State will have to beg more money from Koch Industries and the seed/chemical giants. Iowa farmers will lose public research. We are locking out foreign students who paid good money to fill our graduate schools of engineering and science. We are losing out on the next generation of technical and medical research by crimping on higher education. Congress should reverse the research funding decline, but is caught up in the moment of trying to keep the economy from imploding. One of the best and most direct ways to shore up the Iowa economy is to invest in education and research. It helps us grow better corn with fewer resources, it helps rural communities cope with change, and it gives first-generation students a food on the ladder to success. Innovation starts with education. Now is the time to invest. We cannot afford to lose what we have.

Count everyone

President Trump’s order not to count undocumented immigrants will hurt Buena Vista County and other rural meatpacking counties especially hard. The Census is required by law to count all residents, not just citizens. Of course, our community has a large number of immigrants, as do Denison, Marshalltown, Columbus Junction, Perry and so on. Federal and state funds are determined by Census counts. So is political apportionment. Buena Vista County will be short-changed and under-represented if everyone is not counted. Already, Buena Vista County was vastly undercounted in the Census because even legal immigrants are afraid of being deported, and are suspicious of people knocking at the door asking questions. Trump’s order will only make it worse. Legal experts believe the order will not stand. The only way to make sure is to elect Joe Biden in November. We should get our fair share. It is not the fault of Storm Lake that the world chooses to move here. Why should we be punished?

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