Private, community college fall enrollments in Iowa hold strong

'We are reversing the national trend'

Students walk across campus at Cornell College in Mount Vernon on Monday, Sept. 14, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Students walk across campus at Cornell College in Mount Vernon on Monday, Sept. 14, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Enrollment at many of Eastern Iowa’s private and community colleges either increased or remained strong this fall, apparently bucking — at least for this year — concerns many had about how increased competition from Iowa’s public universities might affect student selection.

Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids began its academic year with an estimated total enrollment of 1,857 — the largest in its nearly 90-year history. Breaking down that overall figure, Mount Mercy also is poised to set records in traditional freshmen, residential students, online students, graduate students, and international students, according to Mount Mercy officials.

Nearby Coe College, meanwhile, is reporting its third-largest first-year class and total enrollment this fall. Coe’s 410 new students includes 178 Iowa residents.

Although its 1,331 full-time total is just below last year’s record of 1,340, Coe is boasting a record number of students living on campus — 1,210, up from last year’s record of 1,205. And 28 percent of its first-year pupils are “students of color.”

“This is a historically high level of student diversity,” according to a news release.

Cornell College in Mount Vernon saw a drop in total enrollment from 1,077 to 1,033, but spokesman Jamie Kelly said that was the result of a large graduating class in the spring. And, he said, Cornell’s new student count increased this fall from 289 to 318.

“Iowa was a real bright spot for us,” he said. “We had 31 new students from Iowa, and this year we have 56.”

Although Cedar Rapids-based Kirkwood Community College saw its total enrollment hold mostly steady, with just a slight increase from 14,708 to 14,727, its direct-from-high school population rose for substantially.


Last year at this time, 1,813 of Kirkwood’s students had enrolled straight from high school, and this year that total was 2,056. Of that total, 1,880 are Iowans. Of Kirkwood’s overall enrollment, 13,469 are Iowa residents, said Doug Bannon, dean of admissions and student life for Kirkwood.

With Iowa experiencing a shrinking pool of high school graduates and the state’s Board of Regents urging its public universities — University of Iowa, Iowa State University, and University of Northern Iowa — to compete harder for resident students, Bannon said Kirkwood is really excited about its numbers in direct-from-high school Iowans.

“That’s a real barometer that we are very very pleased with,” he said.

Bannon credited the increase, in part, to Kirkwood’s efforts to visit every high school in Iowa and host visitation programs that highlight the small class sizes, diversity of programming, and extracurricular activities.

Kirkwood also instituted mandatory orientations and is offering new programs that appeal to more students and address regional workforce needs.

“I think students see themselves as feeling comfortable here,” Bannon said.

With the cost of higher education continuing to rise, Bannon said, more students and parents also might be realizing the value of starting their academic career at a community college like Kirkwood.

“If a student is undecided or still looking at a college career, it’s a good opportunity at a low cost to experiment with a few programs,” he said.

According to the American Association of Community Colleges, overall enrollment for public two-year institutions in fall 2014 was down 4.8 percent.

One recruiting strategy Kirkwood employed last fall to try and prevent a drop in enrollment was to award scholarships sooner. Instead of waiting until March, the college awarded some in October — including its “Leaders For Tomorrow” scholarship that covers about 80 percent of a year’s tuition and its “Presidential” scholarship, which covers more than a year’s tuition — for things like books and housing.

In total, Kirkwood offers more than $3 million in scholarships every year.


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“Students are doing their research, and they understand the value of a Kirkwood education,” said Jon Buse, vice president of student services. “The numbers tells us that we are reversing the national trend.”


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