Eastern Iowa private colleges find encouraging news in fall enrollment reports

Coe reports largest incoming class in its history

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Even as the University of Iowa and Iowa State University look to slow years of record-setting enrollment growth, many of Iowa’s private colleges continue the pursuit for more students — and some in Eastern Iowa are reporting success this fall.

Coe College in Cedar Rapids, for one, welcomed 446 new full-time students — the largest incoming class in its history, representing a 6.7 percent jump over its 418 first-year students last fall. Coe also reported 1,348 total full-time students, breaking another record and representing a 2.4 percent bump over last fall’s 1,317 full-time students.

Coe’s total student body this fall — which includes part-time students — came in at 1,393, which is the lowest since at least 2013.

But Coe officials stressed their primary market is full-time students.

“It is not surprising nor concerning to us that the total number of part-time students varies from year to year, and the number has declined significantly this fall,” Coe spokesman Rod Pritchard said.

Conversely, the first-year and full-time student increases mean the private liberal arts college is headed in the right direction, according to Coe President David McInally.

“We plan to try to continue to do this for the next four years,” McInally said. “This was a first year of a five-year plan. By about 2021 — if all goes well — we would reach our desired level.”

Cornell College in Mount Vernon reported enrollment growth this fall — with 300 freshmen to last year’s 287. Its in-state enrollment swelled from 172 last year to 206 this fall, with its total enrollment climbing slightly from 978 to 1,009.

Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids saw declines in total enrollment — from 1,886 last fall to 1,848 this year — and first-year students, which dropped from 660 to 629.

But the Catholic liberal arts college did report record numbers in full-time students, undergraduates and freshmen.

Among Iowa’s biggest community colleges, Cedar Rapids’ Kirkwood reported more new students and out-of-state students but fewer in-state students. And its total enrollment dropped from 14,737 in fall 2016 to 14,402 this year.

“The slight decline in overall enrollment was expected, and is mostly attributed to fewer adult learners starting or returning to Kirkwood, which is often the case in stronger economies,” Kirkwood spokesman Justin Hoehn said.

Des Moines Area Community College is counting more total students this fall — 23,250 over last fall’s 22,350.

Enrollment shuffle

Playing into Iowa’s higher education enrollment shuffle are issues around funding, workforce needs, shifting demographics and scholarship resources.

Iowa’s biggest public universities — ISU and the UI — have seen record classes in recent years, but actively stalled growth this fall with lawmakers slashing support for the institutions. In the last legislative session, the state took back more than $20 million from the public universities’ base appropriations in the 2017 budget year and cut another nearly $10 million in the new budget.

UI and ISU efforts to halt growth could feel like whiplash for some Iowans, after the UI in 2014 — responding to Board of Regents demands it educate more Iowans — ramped up recruitment efforts.

ISU, meanwhile, experienced an enrollment spike of 44 percent between 2006 and 2016 — making it the largest public university in the state — before stretched resources and floundering state support led it to enroll slightly fewer first-year and total students this fall.

The heightened competition for Iowa’s graduating high schoolers affected the private college market, officials said.

And those institutions today — along with University of Northern Iowa — continue to seek more students, even as the number of high school seniors in Iowa remains stagnant.

‘Verge of realignment’

That’s led to debate over the state’s best balance of resident and non-resident students, and what it should mean for higher education funding. All the while, workforce demands continue to change and grow — with a report indicating 68 percent of all Iowa jobs in 2025 will require some level of postsecondary training.

“We are on the verge of realignment,” Gary Steinke, president of the Iowa Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, said in reference to enrollment. “But I can’t tell you where that realignment is going to go.”

The uncertainty can be disconcerting, according to Steinke.

Encouraging results

But Coe, for one, believes its enrollment trends “bode well for the college’s future success.”

Spokesman Pritchard called it “healthy for Coe that the number of full-time students has grown relative to the number of part-time students.”

The institution’s growth goal is about 1,600 full-time students — or about 250 more than this year — by 2021, according to President McInally. He cautioned Coe might not be quite there in exactly four years, but it will be close if the campus can bring in about 480 new students a year.

Facilities upgrades and program expansion should help — with Coe recently completing $24 million in new and renovated facilities, including an expanded Hickok Hall, and new Athletics and Recreation Complex.

“We marketed as hard as we could, as we did before, but we’re seeing more encouraging results,” McInally said, giving some credit to “the renaissance of Cedar Rapids” after the 2008 flood.

“As Cedar Rapids has progressed in so many wonderful ways following the flood, we’ve been part of that,” he said.

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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