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Iowa public universities: Enrollments will stabilize or rise in coming years
Legislative committee looking at how regents use resources
DES MOINES — Though total enrollment across Iowa’s public universities has been sliding for the last five years — including drops because of the pandemic — the University of Iowa is predicting a 4 percent one-year jump next fall and 6 percent bump by 2026, according to new data the UI provided to lawmakers.
On the other hand, Iowa State University isn’t forecasting enrollment growth, according to the legislative documents. But it does expect its falling enrollment to stabilize over the next five years despite a projected “enrollment cliff” in the Midwest due to lower birthrates seen during the recession.
“Iowa State’s enrollment landscape is continuously changing and is impacted by numerous variables, including the projected enrollment ‘cliff’ in 2025; changing state demographics; increased competition from border states … and challenges recruiting international students,” according to ISU, which has seen its 36,291-strong student body in 2016 wane 15 percent to 30,708 this fall.
The University of Northern Iowa’s total enrollment has been dropping for even longer, since 2010 — tumbling 30 percent over the decade to 9,231 this fall, its lowest point since 1968. And the campus is projecting no increase next year “to account for relatively low entering cohorts from recent years.”
But UNI does foresee growth on the horizon, sharing with lawmakers its expectations of an uptick starting in fall 2023 and a gradual 17-percent increase to 10,821 by fall 2026.
“This projection reflects steady growth over this next five-year period, driven by robust recruitment and retention efforts and continued emphasis on the high value of a UNI degree,” according to the legislative documents.
Although the projected growth could be hindered by external factors, like federal and state policy changes, UNI President Mark Nook told lawmakers last week the eventual goal is to grow his university back into a 13,000-student campus — a number it last reached a decade ago in 2011.
“One of the biggest impactors on the University of Northern Iowa is the economy,” Nook said, noting a smooth-running economy with low unemployment lures would-be students from education to the workforce. “But we can't expect that to continue forever. And as it comes back a little bit into more normal periods of time, we do expect our enrollment to come up.”
All three of Iowa’s public university presidents addressed enrollment and other topics Friday as five state senators and five state representatives comprising a new “regents universities study committee” peppered them with questions in Des Moines about how they use their resources.
‘We feel good’
Countering concerns about overall enrollment losses — and with them, fears of tuition revenue losses — the university presidents pointed lawmakers to increases this fall in their freshman classes. ISU reported the biggest first-year jump of 6 percent; UNI reported a 5 percent bump; and the UI reported a slight uptick of 11 students.
And, while conceding next fall is a long time away, UI President Barbara Wilson reported applications for the next academic year are up 43 percent from out-of-state prospects.
“We are expecting a robust set of applications and a lot of interest in the University of Iowa, including from Illinois,” Wilson said. “So we feel good about it.”
Nook reported his campus’ applications also are up “significantly” — although UNI generally has only about 60 percent of its undergraduate applications in hand by this point, and he cautioned against reading too much into the early numbers.
“This is November. I'm not about to count chickens yet because these aren't even eggs,” Nook said. “But we've got applications up. We've got to turn them into admits, we've got to get them confirmed, we've got to get them enrolled. So there's a lot to do … But we're in a good place this point.”
The campus executives conceded they need to plug the hole in their international student pipeline and reverse the massive losses they’ve experienced in recent years.
Where a total 8,777 international students enrolled in Iowa’s public universities in fall 2015, according to regent documents, fewer than half that — 4,383 — did this year. International students typically pay the highest tuition rates.
“We have to get back on track with international students,” ISU President Wendy Wintersteen told lawmakers. “This is an incredibly important item for Iowa. We retain incredible students from countries all over the world. But if they can't get here for their education, we can't add them to our workforce.”
Nook also reported, “50 percent of our enrollment decline this year was international students,” he said. “So getting the international students feeling comfortable to come back is really important.”
Grow in a ‘diverse way’
Lawmakers asked about other enrollment trends — like fewer men, more first-generation students and more students who identify as minorities. The total minority proportion systemwide has increased from 11 percent in 2013 to 17 percent this year.
Women across all three campuses make up 51 percent of undergraduates, 53 percent of graduate students and 60 percent of professional students. Nook said this trend isn’t new. It’s been evolving, he said, prompting questions of, “Where have all the men gone?”
“Well, the men haven't gone anywhere,” he said. “The women's movement has actually worked and gotten more and more women into higher ed. Now we are at a point where the percentage of high school male students going to college is starting to slip. And I think a lot of that is driven by our current economy.”
Regent data shows a growing percentage of all Iowa high school graduates — male and female — are skipping college altogether. About 33 percent didn’t go straight to college in 2019, compared with 23 percent in 2013.
Although the percentage of high school graduates heading to a regent university has remained stable at 19 percent, fewer are going to Iowa private campuses, community colleges and out-of-state institutions.
As the presidents urged the state fund their missions, lawmakers asked for evidence that out-of-state students stay in Iowa after they graduate — boosting the state economy. Although the regents provided data for percentage of bachelor, master’s and doctoral students who get jobs in Iowa after graduation, they didn’t share a breakdown of just those who came from another state.
“It is a point, I think, of contention as we talk about Iowa tax dollars paying for our regent universities,” said Rep. Cindy Winckler, D-Davenport. “If we are keeping those individuals from out of state in our state to meet the needs of our communities, that is an advantage.”
UNI reports the highest percent of its graduates finding work in Iowa one, five and 10 years after getting a degree. The UI reports the lowest percentage.
But Wilson noted regents recently entered a data-sharing partnership with the U.S. Census Bureau, and the board intends to dig into those details in the coming months.
“It will allow us to track our students over time and whether they leave the state or come back,” Wilson said, “which is what we often see students who go away to one of the coasts for a job and then two or three years later say, ‘I'm coming back because the quality of life is better in the Midwest.’”
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