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The Elbert Files: Starving education


Iowa State University is sending mixed messages.

At a time when ISU’s major-sport athletic teams have shown they can play at the highest levels, its academics appear to be sinking. 

The contrast was obvious in headlines that appeared in a recent Des Moines Sunday Register. 

While the sports section touted ISU’s men’s basketball team with a headline that proclaimed “We just witnessed the emphatic rebirth of Iowa State,” the top story in another section was “ISU cuts worry faculty, national group; Some departments could lose 25% of their budgets.”

So which is it, Iowa State? 

Have you heroically rebuilt your men’s (and women’s) basketball programs, not to mention football? 

Or are you slashing and burning your academics?

At this point, both appear to be true.

Even worse, the financial problems at Iowa State in Ames are also occurring at Iowa’s two other public universities, the University of Iowa in Iowa City and the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.

Iowa lawmakers have been slowly cutting back financial assistance to all three schools for years in a devious way that is not unlike what happens to lobsters when they are boiled in slow-cooking pots, namely they don’t feel the heat until it is too late.

In the case of Iowa’s public universities, lawmakers have been gradually dialing down the amount of state money available to schools at all levels in ways that are both dangerous and cynical.

It’s dangerous because less state money is going to the schools at a time when worldwide competition for smart, innovative people is on the rise. 

Without quality programs and teachers, the schools can’t hope to attract the caliber of students needed to meet national and international competition. Nor will the universities be able to supply innovative Iowa companies with the talent they need. 

We are, I’m afraid, already in a downward spiral.

It’s cynical because what state officials have done is gradually cap state contributions over a period of several years, allowing them to claim that they are simply upholding the status quo.

But that’s not what’s really happening. 

Not when you figure in inflation, which had been chipping away at budgets at the rate of 2% to 4% a year, but has now jumped to about 8%.

Mike Lipsman, a retired manager and analyst for the Iowa Department of Revenue, recently wrote that state funding for Iowa’s three public universities peaked at $776 million in 2009 and “dropped 21 percent to $613 million by 2021.”

The cuts have already taken a toll that is obvious when you realize that the number of full-time science and engineering graduate students at Iowa State and the University of Iowa fell by more than 20% between 2010 and 2019, Lipsman wrote.

And if that is not enough, he added, Iowa’s once-prized leadership in public education fell to No. 24 in U.S. News’s 2021 annual ranking of public schools.

This year, Republican lawmakers again say they will hold the line and that Iowa’s public universities should expect no increase in state appropriations. This, I might add, occurs at a time when state coffers are flush with one-time, federal COVID-19 money.

Instead of providing much-needed money at a time when the pandemic has disrupted much of campus life, Republican lawmakers say they will provide an extra $12 million – roughly the equivalent of a 2% increase in the schools’ total funding – but the new money can only be used for scholarships for future teachers and others working in unspecified high-demand careers.

In other words, it will be a mini-slush fund of sorts to be handed out at the discretion of someone, although it is unclear who or how decisions will be made about who gets the aid.  

In any case, it’s a bad idea. 

The concept reeks of central planning; some might even call it socialism. 

It amounts to someone, somewhere picking winners and losers when it comes to deciding which occupations in Iowa will grow. 

That’s not what I call a free market.


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