Iowa community colleges face dips in money and students

Challenges make it harder to meet ambitious worker training goal

Iowa Hall is seen at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Iowa Hall is seen at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

State financial support along with tuition and fees fueled 88 percent of the fiscal 2017 revenue for Iowa’s 15 community colleges, even as both sources decrease as enrollment dips and lawmakers cut the budget.

A new “Condition of Iowa’s Community Colleges” report made public this week shows total enrollment for credit courses dropped 2.1 percent and general state aid for the schools fell 3 percent — contributing to a total revenue drop of 2.4 percent in fiscal 2017.

Despite the drops, lawmakers and Gov. Kim Reynolds are pushing a “Future Ready Iowa” initiative aimed at building the state’s talent pipeline by getting 70 percent of Iowa’s workforce some education or training beyond high school by 2025.

John McGlothlen / The Gazette

Des Moines Area Community College President Rob Denson said the state’s community colleges are “the most important” player in being able to attain that goal.

“That’s because about 60 percent of jobs in Iowa require more than high school but no more than a two-year degree,” Denson said. “So I think we are uniquely positioned.”

But community colleges need resources to boost enrollment and support those students with top faculty, new programs and innovative training opportunities, according to Denson. And lawmakers have been doing the opposite lately — shrinking total community college aid from $209.2 million in 2015 to $199.5 million in 2017, with another proposed de-appropriation on the table for 2018.

Reynolds recently suggested taking back $1.8 million in state appropriations from Iowa’s community colleges in the current budget year to make up for a budget shortfall, and a Senate bill introduced Thursday would triple that reduction — cutting $5.4 million from the schools.

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The Senate GOP plan, which would reduce spending by a total $52 million, cleared the Appropriations Committee on a 13-8 party-line vote Thursday. The bill, which hits higher education the hardest with a proposed de-appropriation of more than $19 million for Iowa’s public universities in addition to the community college cuts, goes to the Senate floor next week.

“Obviously that is problematic,” Denson said, noting community colleges already operate at a “very tight margin.”

Cuts could curb areas of planned growth, nix program additions and expansions, and even curtail existing offerings.

John McGlothlen / The Gazette

“But the economy is the economy, and tough times call for tough decisions,” he said. “We want to minimize the cuts, but we will do what we have got to do to continue operating.”

That, most certainly, will mean increasing tuition — which already has been on the rise, according to the annual report. All of Iowa’s 15 community colleges increased in-state and out-of-state rates this year, with Cedar Rapids-based Kirkwood Community College reporting among the steepest increases.

Its in-state tuition per semester credit hour bumped up from $154 to $162, while its out-of-state rate moved from $184 to $202. National and regional comparisons of tuition and fees for an academic year based on 30 credit hours revealed Iowa — with a total cost of enrollment at $4,697 in the 2016 budget year — was in the 85th percentile, meaning Iowa’s average was greater than or equal to 85 percent of all reporting states.

Within its seven-state region, Iowa ranked third highest — topped only by South Dakota at $5,338 and Minnesota with $5,284 a year.

But the cost to attend community college remains well below the price of public four-year universities in Iowa, according to the report.

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“We are still unbelievably reasonable, and our quality is virtually the same,” Denson argued.

Because tuition is the only flexible funding option, he said, the colleges must use it — although he committed not to raise rates midyear. And the colleges are hoping, at least in part, to bolster tuition revenue by increasing enrollment.

When looking at fall 2017 enrollment by college, Kirkwood reported 14,480 students — compared with 14,814 in 2015. DMACC has been among the few in Iowa with increases, but Denson noted community college enrollment has been down nationally because of a stronger economy.

“During recessions, enrollment goes up, and in recoveries it goes down,” he said. “It’s directly related to people being laid off or under-employed … It’s not at all unusual.”

Still, Denson said, although he doesn’t want a recession, he does want to buck the community college enrollment trend.

“We do want more people coming in so we can generate these workers for the companies that need them,” he said.

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

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