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Defying U.S. trend, Iowa ups community college enrollment
Nationally, poll found big drop in students saying college degree is important
- For the first time since 2010, Iowa's community colleges recorded an enrollment increase this year.
- Kirkwood Community College is one of eight in Iowa that reported fewer students.
- Sixty-six percent of Iowa's community college students are part time.
- High school students taking community college classes accounts for 45 percent of enrollment in Iowa.
IOWA CITY — After shedding students annually for more than a decade — a post-Great Recession trend aggravated by the pandemic — Iowa’s 15 community colleges this fall recorded their first collective enrollment uptick since 2010: a half percentage point bump, pushing the student tally to 82,251.
Individually, a new Iowa community college enrollment report this week shows a more nuanced divide — with seven colleges reporting an increase and eight reporting the opposite.
Cedar Rapids’ Kirkwood Community College is among those with fewer students this fall — after restoring some of its massive 2020 COVID-19 losses last year. At 12,414 students, Kirkwood is sitting 1.5 percent below last fall’s 12,607 and 12.5 percent below the pre-pandemic 2019 enrollment of 14,182. Eastern Iowa Community College in Davenport saw a bigger percentage drop of 4.2 percent.
Those that made gains this fall include the state’s largest — Des Moines Area Community College — reporting a 5.4 percent increase to 21,637, which widened its enrollment gap with Kirkwood, the state’s second largest college.
Both colleges reported fewer full-time students this fall than last, continuing and contributing to a statewide community college trend that saw part-time numbers eke past full-time counts in 2011 and continue to ascend in the years since, while full-timers have faded. This fall, 54,174 of Iowa’s community college students are part time — accounting for 66 percent of the total and reaching an all-time high.
Meanwhile, 28,077 are enrolled full time, accounting for 34 percent and an all-time low.
In the early 1970s, the reverse was true, with full-time students accounting for more than 80 percent of the total while part-time students were under 20 percent.
Some of that shift involves escalating joint enrollment among students pursuing high school and college credit simultaneously. This fall, 37,123 Iowa high school students participated in at least one joint-enrollment program — up 4.2 percent over last year’s 35,634. Those students accounted for 45 percent of Iowa’s total community college enrollment — with each taking, on average, 5.3 credit hours.
Comparing Iowa’s community college system to its peers across the country, its total enrollment uptick this fall counters the national .4 percent loss. Community college enrollment nationally — hit harder by the pandemic than public and private four-year colleges — contracted by 5.4 percent from fall 2020 to fall 2021, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.
But where community college freshman enrollment increased nearly 1 percentage point nationally this fall, according to the clearinghouse, new community college students in Iowa — accounting for 20 percent of all enrollment — and the portion who come straight from high school, accounting for 7 percent, declined over the last two fall semesters.
“The COVID-19 pandemic seemed to impact the stability of those proportions,” according to Iowa’s new enrollment report. “And this year’s immediate enrollee numbers continue last year’s downward trend, with these students representing 7.3 percent of total fall 2022 enrollment, an 11.7 percent decline from last fall.”
In assessing its own enrollment declines this fall, Iowa’s Board of Regents — which governs the state’s public four-year universities — eyed postsecondary enrollment trends among Iowa high schoolers and found a 4.5 percentage point decline in college-going rates between 2015 and 2019.
That’s lower than some neighboring states — like Nebraska’s 1.5 percent drop. But it’s not as steep as the 5 percentage point drop in Illinois, traditionally one of Iowa’s biggest student exporters.
Digging deeper, regents found Iowa’s community colleges have been hit hardest — with the number of Iowa high school graduates in 2020-2021 who enrolled in a community college right after graduation nearly 20 percent below a decade ago, 2011-12.
And broadly speaking, while more students graduated from an Iowa high school in 2019-20 than a decade earlier, fewer enrolled in any type of college immediately after graduating in 2019-20 than they did in 2011-12, according to the regent report.
“So a postsecondary enrollment decline is not due to a drop in the number of high school graduates,” Claire Waletzki, an Iowa State University practicum student for the regents said during the board’s meeting last week.
That seems to be intentional, based on statewide data polling high school students on post-graduation plans back to 2011-12. The percent planning to go to community college after graduation dropped from 38 percent over the decade to 30 percent. Those planning to attend a public four-year university ticked up 1 percent to 27 percent — although that’s down from the 29 percent who planned to do so in 2015-16.
The percent of high school graduates who planned to jump straight into the workforce was one category that increased — with 9 percent planning to do so in 2011-12 and 15 percent reporting as much last year.
“Wages are up,” Jason Pontius, associate chief academic officer for the Board of Regents, said. “It's easy to find a $15-an-hour job. And that's generally seen as being the explanation for why this is happening.”
In fact, he said, the board got a preview of more recent data from the Iowa Department of Education. “And they said, for this year, that number has jumped to 17 percent of students,” Pontius said of those planning to pursue employment after high school.
Across the nation, 1.2 million more high school graduates ages 16 to 24 are employed and not in school than in 2013 — while 3 million fewer are enrolled in a two- to four-year college. When those who don’t have a bachelor’s degree or aren’t pursuing one were asked why not, according to the Pew Research Center, 42 percent said they couldn’t afford it; 36 percent said they needed to work to help their family; 29 said they “just didn’t want to”; and 23 percent said they didn’t need a degree for the job they wanted.
Similarly, where 70 percent of Gallup poll respondents said a college education was very important in 2013, just 51 percent said so in 2019. Conversely, where 6 percent said a college education was not too important in 2013, 13 percent said so in 2019.
“From 2013 to 2019, that's only six years,” Regent David Barker said, expressing shock. “It dropped from 70 percent to 51 percent of people saying college is very important. That’s a huge drop in a very short time.”
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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