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Iowa universities expected enrollment declines 18 years after recession. They didn't expect a pandemic

'If we don't provide something different than just an online education, we will not have as many students here'

Oct 13, 2020 at 6:30 am
    Laurie Harker illustation

    If University of Iowa students wanted an online education, “they could do the University of Phoenix,” a University of Iowa dean in June told more than 400 faculty and staff during a candid and contentious meeting regarding plans for a COVID-19-plagued return to campus for the fall of 2020.

    His comments came after employees aired safety concerns, personal anxieties and health risks. One person asked if faculty and staff could be terminated for rebuffing directives to teach face to face.

    “If, in the end, you go against all the directives that have been set up, is your job in danger? I guess the answer would be yes, it could be,” UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean Steve Goddard told the packed Zoom meeting. “If you’re not doing the job that you’re being hired and paid for to do yes, it could be.”

    During the meeting that laid out massive budget cuts — with his college seeking to trim as much as $25 million in the coming years — Goddard highlighted falling enrollment as the biggest problem. Not new coronavirus expenses. Not the millions lost in state funding over the years, including this one.

    “The real hit is the reduction in tuition,” Goddard said.

    Tuition losses from enrollment slides for years have worried the U.S. higher education enterprise — particularly institutions across the East Coast, Great Lakes and Midwest regions, where a metaphorical “enrollment cliff” has been looming.

    The cliff was projected to arrive 18 years after its cause — the 2008 recession that compelled many Americans to delay having children or have fewer. Projections showed the typical college-bound population starting to dwindle in 2026 and staying low for years — with often-cited economist and Carleton College Professor Nathan Grawe warning the country’s college-going populace could wane 15 percent.

    Iowa was among the states he colored deep red in graphics forecasting college-going student declines from 2012 to 2029 — signaling losses of more than 15 percent, just as in neighboring Illinois, which sends tens of thousands of students to Iowa annually.

    Nebraska, South Dakota, Minnesota and Michigan — which funnel thousands of students to Iowa colleges annually — also appear fated for severe college-bound populace declines.

    And those projections came long before COVID-19 hit, forcing colleges and universities locally and nationally to move instruction online in mid-March; repatriate study-abroad students; curtail in-person events and activities, such as athletics and graduation; and stay in virtual-only mode into the summer.

    As campuses eyed an unprecedented fall semester shrouded in coronavirus unknowns, administrators considering reopening their campuses weighed safety concerns with student desires to return and the likelihood they would pull their enrollment, and thus tuition revenue, if they couldn’t — all in the face of massive budget losses and state funding cuts.

    As UI College of Liberal Arts Dean Goddard explained during his faculty and staff town hall in June, “They come here for something different.”

    “If we don’t provide something different than just an online education, we will not have as many students here,” he said. “I can’t think of a reason why an out-of-state student would register for an out-of-state class, to take it online, while they’re in their parents’ basement.”

    Those concerns drove the UI, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa — among many others — to opt for a hybrid fall semester, involving both in-person and online components.

    “We are going to be open in person for in-person instruction with students on the campus this fall,” Goddard said. “And there’s an important reason for doing that. If we don’t, we will have much more severe budget cuts.”

    ISU Provost Jonathan Wickert shared a similar message over the summer, pointing toward enrollment concerns as a main driver for bringing students back to campus for fall.

    “They place a great value not only on their interactions with faculty in the classroom, but also their interactions in advising appointments, during office hours and through faculty service to student organizations,” he said. “Some students are likely to take a gap year, or seek an alternative closer to home, rather than enroll in a substantial number of online courses.

    “Such a scenario would result in lower enrollments and negatively impact the university’s academic mission for years to come.”

    Pandemic accelerator

    As Iowa universities — faced with an approaching enrollment cliff — cling today to wavering students, some experts wonder whether COVID-19 has rushed the drop-off into plain view.

    “I think it did,” said Sally M. Johnstone, president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems in Boulder, Colo. “You can kick the can down the road and say, ‘Oh, well, it’s not until 2025 that we’re going to really hit the wall.’ But it’s faster because of the pandemic.”

    Student-baiting trappings campuses planned to roll out over the next few years to counter enrollment declines should come out of the toolbox now — along with any right-sizing measures required of universities facing shrinking student bodies and budgets, according to Johnstone.

    That includes more distance-learning opportunities, merged departments, dropped programming and even layoffs.

    “Forget the pandemic for a minute, and go back to the demographics,” Johnstone said. “We have an infrastructure that was built for one kind of activity and a certain number of people, and now we’re asking everything involved in that infrastructure — from physical to talent and services and everything else — to pivot to be different.

    “And what the pandemic did was accelerate it.”

    Johnstone in the fall visited Iowa and met for a retreat with Iowa’s Board of Regents, at which she warned the governing body about Iowa’s forecasted drop in high school graduates — with totals projected to drop from about 37,500 in 2025 to 35,000 in 2029.

    That matters because most high school graduates stay local — meaning the enrollment pipeline into Iowa colleges and universities runs primarily through the state’s high schools. Nearly 62 percent of the more than 75,000 students who enrolled at the UI, ISU and UNI in fall 2019 were Iowa residents, according to Board of Regents data.

    The regent universities’ collective in-state enrollment has not wavered much over the past decade, although out-of-state enrollment swelled across the regent schools in 2016 — when Iowa State’s total enrollment was surging, breaking annual records and compelling leadership to intentionally curtail growth just a few — but seemingly distant — years ago.

    “But it remains the fact that most students will study in-state,” said Grawe, the Carleton College professor whose extensive research predicting the enrollment cliff in his 2018 book, “Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education,” has fueled preparations across higher academia. “About 80 percent of first-time, first-year students are studying in state.”

    That percentage is even higher in Iowa, according to regent data showing 87 percent of its high school graduates in 2018 stayed here for college. And high schoolers who choose to leave their home states don’t go far, Grawe told The Gazette.

    Californians might choose a place such as Oregon, for example, making those markets still projecting growth in the future — such as California, Colorado and Utah — unlikely aids for schools in states facing projected crises.

    Compounding Iowa’s declines in overall high school graduates are projections showing dips in white students and increases in underrepresented minorities — which matters because minority students traditionally have pursued college at lower rates than their white counterparts.

    The percent of white graduates from Iowa’s public high schools will decrease from 86 percent in 2012-13 to 76 percent in 2031-32, according to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. Meanwhile its non-white graduates will surge from 14 percent of the total to 24 percent over the same period — with the Hispanic and Black populace slated for the biggest jump.

    And yet regent data show about 54 percent and 55 percent of Hispanic and Black high school graduates, respectively, enroll in college — compared with 70 and 74 percent of white and Asian students.

    Shifting demographics have prompted Iowa colleges and universities to prioritize outreach to those groups, including through aid and scholarships. But financial aid can be challenging to increase, specifically at an institutional level when budgets are being slashed, faculty are being furloughed, instructors are losing their jobs and tuition rates are stagnant.

    “A lot of colleges are freezing tuition and offering record discounts for fall because they’re trying to keep enrollment up,” said Elizabeth Keest Sedrel, a spokeswoman for Iowa College Aid.

    All three Iowa public universities froze tuition rates for fall — a redirection for Iowa and Iowa State, both of which had planned for at least

    3 percent rate hikes.

    “But, of course, that means they’ve got to come up with more money to make up the gap between the frozen tuition and these discounts,” Sedrel said.

    ‘I’m not going’

    The concerns were validated. As of mid-September, the UI stated its total student enrollment for this fall would be down by almost 800 students.

    ISU’s student headcount dropped by 1,566 students, the school said. And UNI reported a decline of 975.

    Through a UI survey asking spring 2020 students about its COVID-19 response, 214 of 3,124 non-graduating respondents had said they were not planning to return in the fall — or at least weren’t sure.

    UI junior Jorge Marrero, 20, said he’s heard that sentiment among his UI peers.

    “At least a few of my friends were like, ‘If it’s totally online next semester, I’m not going,’  ” Marrero said, adding he, too, considered the idea of a gap year until the pandemic wanes.

    “But I’m already a little behind,” he said. “So it isn’t really an option for me. I’m going to go either way.”

    Among the main reasons his friends have given for opting out is that some majors are simply harder to learn — and glean relevant, real-world experience — via virtual instruction.

    “Let’s say my friends were music majors,” he said. “You need that in-person experience.”

    Marrero is majoring in civil engineering and was taking four classes when COVID-19 interrupted his progress. Although he found virtual instruction manageable for three of his classes, he ended up dropping one that already was challenging.

    “Doing it online made it even harder to learn the material,” he said.

    The UI survey that found hundreds of students at least questioning whether to return highlighted financial and health concerns as the main reasons — although 16 percent said they’re not confident they are prepared to do well in class and 11 percent said they don’t feel as connected to the UI community. Another 11 percent said they’re planning to take courses somewhere else.

    And the UI survey reports that of those not returning or unsure for fall 2020, 61 percent said they either are very or somewhat likely to come back at some point.

    And therein lies a potential silver lining.

    ‘This time is different’

    While COVID-19 could serve as an accelerant toward an enrollment precipice that had been years away, it also could level the cliff into more of a steep slope — or even a dale. Because, as economist Grawe suggests, COVID-19 enrollment losses could return at some point.

    “Whereas we know that the decline in births that we expect to start feeling in the mid-2020s, which is followed by more decline in births, in this case, if kids are delaying college, we would anticipate that there would be a pickup,” he said.

    On top of that, COVID-19 has pushed the country into an economic recession, which traditionally drives Americans back toward higher education — as they’re out of work and looking to re-up their skills and training.

    “This time is different, though, because the recession is caused by a pandemic, which itself inhibits how we engage in teaching and learning,” Grawe said, harkening back to the reasons COVID-19 might usher in an earlier cliff. “So it will be very, very challenging to get through this.”

    Student returns could come too late, for example.

    “It may be true that whatever dip we have will eventually be followed by a rebound echo as delayed enrollments come back to school,” Grawe said. “But there are a lot of schools for whom such disturbance is nonetheless going to be very difficult to navigate.”

    Schools such as Iowa’s Grinnell College — with robust endowments and esteemed reputations — will be able to weather the storm by dipping a little deeper into their applicant pool, for example.

    “But some of the smaller, independent schools that don’t have significant endowments don’t look at a delayed recovery as just a wash,” Grawe said. “What they view is instead a very, very tough short-term.”

    Because not only are colleges and universities losing students uninspired by online learning, bleeding state funding, spending more on safety and technology and cutting budgets via faculty and staff, economic pains are hurting their customers, students and parents — increasing the number who are simply unable to afford a college education, Grawe noted.

    “They’re going to get hit on every side,” he said.

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

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