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Facing unsettling headwinds like sliding enrollment, surging costs and shrinking demand for “general education” courses, the liberal arts colleges at the University of Iowa and Iowa State are facing deficits in the millions of dollars.
At the UI, the deficit was $6.2 million last year. At ISU, the deficit is $11.4 million, with expectations the shortfall will swell to $15 million in three years.
In response, Iowa State’s College of Liberal Arts & Sciences — the second largest on campus — recently unveiled a multiyear initiative aimed at “right-sizing” its budget for today’s enrollment, expenses and employment realities — including that a growing number of freshmen are entering college having already completed many “gen ed” requirements.
“Colleges of arts and sciences at universities nationwide have experienced significant financial headwinds for several years,” according to a “reimagining liberal arts and sciences” summary that college leaders sent to faculty and staff last month.
“While (ISU’s College of Liberal Arts & Sciences) has been able to sustain its current breadth of programs for longer than many others, these financial challenges have now reached a tipping point where they must be structurally addressed to ensure the long-term success of the college.”
Enrollment in the college has dropped from 7,090 in 2017 to 6,173 in fall 2021.
The Iowa State plan calls for cuts across the college’s 19 departments — giving them until the 2025 budget year to come up with a $8.6 million in reductions and outstanding debt.
The college will cut an additional $6.4 million from its central programs and services, while also aggressively pursuing “growth opportunities with the goal of generating new revenue.”
As a “financial backstop,” the Iowa State provost office will cover any “fiscal-year-end spending authority deficit” up to $4 million annually for three budget years, for a total commitment of up to $12 million.
College leaders are working with department chairs to accomplish the mandated budget reductions — ranging from a low of $68,421 for the computer science department to a high of $955,452 for the history department.
The cuts were determined by metrics and trends like the number of undergraduate majors, student credit hours taught and research productivity.
Computer science, for example, has seen its enrollment soar from 280 in 2016 to 722 in fall 2021. The history department’s enrollment has fallen from 237 in fall 2016 to 201 in fall 2021.
Departmental cost-cutting measures could include streamlining course offerings; phasing out low-enrollment programs; and merging departments or programs.
The UI’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences — the largest college on campus — acknowledged “unprecedented challenges and transitions” in an April 2021 self-review.
The report stated the college — home to 37 departments and programs and nearly 70 majors — has encountered “constant turnover in senior leadership, budget model changes, fiscal uncertainties, concerns about diversity, equity, and inclusion, and disruptions in transparent communication with regard to college vision and direction” since the last review in 2013.
The college is “in need of stability and a clear path forward.”
It “is in receivership and is currently addressing a $6.2 million deficit that it has arranged to pay back over a three-year period,” the study stated.
And the hurdles were magnified by the pandemic, necessitating a cut of $15.9 million for the 2021 budget year.
Mirroring campuswide enrollment trends, the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences reported 14,490 students this fall, down from 15,286 in fall 2020 and 17,432 in fall 2016.
“As is the case for other universities and colleges, UI enrollments are expected to decrease in coming years due to broad demographic changes,” the study stated.
The new budget model the university debuted in 2018 — in which colleges are funded based on the net tuition assessed to majors — didn’t help, according to the self-study.
The study noted the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences generates approximately 50 percent of the UI’s gross tuition revenue and “continues to subsidize other colleges despite the fact that it struggles to meet basic operational costs, including providing faculty and staff with salary increases.”
Although many students who start in the UI liberal arts college eventually matriculate to colleges housing their majors — like business — the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences “receives no credit” despite its “substantial” contribution to the students’ degree through general education courses.
Trends alter future
At Iowa State, the liberal arts college study took note of the number of students arriving on campus having earned “a significant number of (general education) college credits in high school.”
The report recommended the college identify financially viable general education courses.
It also stated innovation and growth are an essential part of the liberal arts college’s reimagining plan, “representing the bridge from current budget challenges to a renewed emphasis on faculty hiring, research initiatives and enhanced support and services.”
Similarly, the UI self-study determined the recent hit to its operating budget “is not sustainable” and that college leadership “must make difficult decisions regarding how to reallocate resources,” fund strategic priorities and restructure the curriculum.
Possible actions, the study said, include consolidating programs and departments consolidation, created new division structures and eliminating programs.
‘We have to change’
In a video message disseminated Wednesday across the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Dean Sara Sanders said that as the world and student needs change, “we have to change as well.”
“We won’t be breaking up the college, and we won’t be compromising our commitment to a broad-based education in the liberal arts and sciences,” she said, adding, “We have a choice about how we can engage in this process.
“It can be a time of concern and struggle. Or it can be a time of excitement, creativity and reimagining.”
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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