116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
For the first time in more than a decade, Iowa’s 15 community colleges in the last full academic year saw a collective bump in credit-seeking students — although the total number of hours they took continued to fall, sustaining a trend of students taking lighter course loads.
And despite a .4 percent uptick to 117,464 students enrolled from fall 2021 through summer 2022, community college credit enrollment across Iowa remains tens of thousands below its peak in 2011, when the U.S. economy was recovering from the Great Recession that began in 2007.
In a new 2022 Annual Condition of Iowa’s Community Colleges report, presented Thursday to the Iowa Board of Education, the state’s public two-year colleges reported evidence of Iowa’s shifting demographics, economic headwinds, workforce demands and pandemic implications.
“The COVID-19 pandemic precluded face-to-face instruction for many educational institutions nationwide,” according to the report, noting 76 percent of students nationally enrolled in some type of community college distance learning class two years ago, in the 2020-2021 academic year. The percentage was 68 in Iowa that year, a marked spike over 38 percent the year before.
And while Iowa’s community colleges in the 2021-2022 academic year saw their biggest-ever drop in online enrollment — from a record 77,015 to 69,396 — it remained “higher than pre-pandemic levels,” Alison Jepsen, executive officer of the Division of Community Colleges and Workforce Preparation, told the Board of Education.
“And some of that, of course, was due to more classes being in session again and students choosing to return to in-person classes,” she said.
Driving the campuses’ overall enrollment increase for the full 2021-22 academic year that wrapped last summer — an uptick that continued this fall with a .6 percent bump — was more growth in jointly-enrolled students. Those are high school students taking one or more community college courses.
In 1999, Iowa’s community colleges collectively reported an enrollment of 3,890 students ages 17 and under — or about 4 percent of their total. Given the vast majority who participate in joint enrollment courses do so through a contractual agreement between their school district and a community college, meaning they don’t have to pay out of pocket, those numbers have surged over the years.
In the full 2021-2022 academic year, 50,082 high school students enrolled in one or more community college courses — representing a 6 percent increase over the prior year and amounting to 43 percent of the campuses’ total combined enrollment.
Of those students, 941 received certificates, 580 received associate degrees and 283 received diplomas while still in high school — representing a 61 percent spike from the year before.
“Iowa continues to lead the nation among the percentage of high school students who enroll in community college courses,” according to the report, citing National Center for Educational Statistics data from 2019 — the most recent available. It shows Iowa enrolling nearly 37 percent of 18-and-younger students, compared with 16 percent nationally.
Iowa’s community colleges in the most recent academic year also reported an increase in non-credit-seeking students — something that hasn’t happened since the Great Recession struck in 2008. The 151,294 students taking noncredit courses in 2021-22 amounted to a 7.3 percent increase from the prior year.
“That’s a pretty exciting thing for us to see,” Jeremy Varner, administrator of the Iowa Division of Community Colleges and Workforce Preparation, told the board — referencing dramatic losses over the years among that cohort, which had topped 300,000 in 2004.
“The majority of them are job training,” Varner said. “We're talking about training (certified nursing assistants), truck drivers, welders … So seeing a rebound in that enrollment, after a couple years declines, is a really exciting thing to see.”
Also noteworthy was the record minority enrollment, reaching 24.3 percent and representing the growing diversity of the state — as Iowa residents account for 89 percent of the combined community college enrollment.
“The guiding principles of the community colleges are open access, affordable education, economic growth, community support and value to the state,” Executive Officer Jepsen said.
But part of the access piece is tuition, which has continued to climb as state support has waned, according to the community college report.
All 15 of Iowa’s community colleges raised their prices for the current academic year, bumping up the average cost per credit hour from $199 last year to $206 this year — a 2.5 percent increase.
Cedar Rapids-based Kirkwood Community College recorded the largest increase, both in terms of dollars and percentage. Its cost per credit hour rose from $186 last year to $200 this year — amounting to $14 and 7.5 percent.
But including both tuition and fees, Kirkwood still remains among the lowest-cost options — with Des Moines Area Community College charging the least at $178 per credit hour and Northwest Iowa Community College charging the most at $222.
Despite the rate hikes, Iowa’s community colleges have seen an annual drop in tuition and fee revenue when adjusted for 2022 dollars, according to the new report. The adjusted tuition revenue fell to $290.5 million in 2022, down 17 percent from $350.8 million in 2018.
Considering adjusted general aid from the state also has dropped from $237 million in 2018 to $217.8 million in 2022, the community colleges’ collective revenue was down 8 percent from $680 million in 2018 to $626.8 million in 2022.
“The dominant funding streams are state and tuition,” Administrator Varner said.
Given that the pandemic created new budgetary hardships for prospective students facing rising tuition expenses, financial aid is increasingly important in making higher education accessible, according to the report.
Yet total aid distributed by Iowa’s community colleges has dropped — largely due to declining federal aid, which fell from $264.8 million in 2018 to $214 million in 2022. The colleges themselves have picked up some of that slack, but not all of it.
“Affordability concerns certainly remain,” he said.\
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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