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Iowans with an associate degree from any of the state’s 15 community colleges starting this fall will have easier access to a four-year bachelor’s degree thanks to a new University of Northern Iowa online program aimed at removing higher education barriers for adult and place-bound learners.
The UNI@IACC (Iowa Community Colleges) initiative — unveiled Tuesday — not only simplifies and strips away traditional admission and location barriers, it pairs with a new Future Ready Scholarship Program offering UNI@IACC participants money to bridge the gap between UNI and community college tuition prices.
Gov. Kim Reynolds has authorized $4.166 million from the state’s share of the American Rescue Plan funding to support the UNI initiative with scholarships and on-site student support personnel across Iowa’s community colleges over the coming academic year.
“This innovative program provides students with the convenience of attaining a four-year degree without having to relocate to UNI,” Reynolds said in a statement. “Through partnerships with community colleges across Iowa, UNI@IACC meets students right where they are in their rural communities, removing barriers that may have prevented them from pursuing higher education.”
Associate-degree holders interested in pursuing a UNI bachelor’s through this program must choose from several high-demand degrees: managing business and organizations; management: business administration; criminal justice; elementary education; human services; technology management; or a bachelor of liberal studies.
That requirement of the program gets to the heart of a Future Ready Iowa initiative launched in 2016 to get 70 percent of Iowa’s workforce some education or training beyond high school by 2025. Iowa Workforce Development in 2019 reported 60 percent of Iowans held some form of postsecondary credential or degree.
The 70-percent goal emerged out of an evaluation of Iowa’s future workforce needs.
“One of UNI’s greatest strengths is our ability to identify and remove barriers to access and success that many learners face,” UNI President Mark Nook said. “UNI@IACC represents a major leap forward to assure access for more Iowans through this dynamic and innovative program that leads to in-demand careers in their hometowns.”
The new program comes two years after UNI expanded its partnership with Des Moines Area Community College, offering more online degree-completion programs. And it comes amid UNI's ongoing enrollment losses.
UNI’s enrollment last fall of 9,231 was its lowest since 1968 and it represented a 34 percent drop from its peak of 14,070 in 2001.
The Cedar Falls campus last fall reported its fewest new community college transfer students in at least two decades at 453 — down 39 percent from a decade ago and 46 percent from 2005.
UNI also has seen steady losses in older non-traditional undergraduates. Between 2011 and 2021, its undergrad enrollment fell in all age categories from 23 to 64.
UNI, like Iowa’s other regent universities facing years of reduced state support and cutbacks, plans to raise tuition rates for fall by 4.25 percent for all students — those coming from Iowa or out of state at both the undergrad and graduate level.
Even with those increases, UNI for the upcoming budget year is projecting $2.9 million less tuition revenue than last fall “with the projected enrollment,” according to Board of Regents documents.
Although Nook said this new program will boost enrollment, he said, “That’s really secondary.”
“My focus is always on, ‘What are the needs of the state? What are the needs of our students? How do we provide that?’” he said. “And if we do that, the enrollments will take care of themselves.”
Nook said UNI’s transfer enrollments have fallen in recent years, in part, because community college enrollment has been on the decline also.
“So there’s a smaller pool there,” he said. “And the number of students graduating from high school simply going on to any higher ed has dropped.”
With shifting demographics across Iowa — including a projected drop in high school graduates along with a swelling percent of minority and low-income residents — the new UNI program aims to reach beyond the traditional pool of new-student prospects.
"We have for a while recognized that, especially the adult place-bound learners, don't have a lot of options,“ Nook said, noting his campus’ new program aims to answer the question, ”How can put some options back on the table?“
'Remove educational barriers’
Community college leaders agreed that’s imperative — especially after the pandemic vastly expanded the campuses’ ability to offer online programming and students’ willingness to use it.
“This partnership aligns with our mission to change students' lives by providing a clear pathway to success,” Indian Hills Community College President Matt Thompson said in a statement. “Having the ability to complete a four-year degree without having to leave southern Iowa will be life-changing for current and future students of Indian Hills and the University of Northern Iowa.”
Although Future Ready Scholarship offers will vary by individual student, UNI’s tentative fall tuition for resident undergraduates — pending Board of Regents approval Wednesday — is $9,691.
Community colleges are raising rates, too, for the upcoming school year at varying levels. But for the last academic year, according to a statewide report, the average in-state community college student paid between $5,220 and $6,397.50 for 30 credit hours.
That puts the UNI and community college cost difference at between $3,293 and $4,471.
Applications now are being accepted for the new UNI program and scholarship, in hopes of prompt implementation this fall, Nook said.
“These partnerships value access and remove educational barriers that students have experienced in the past,” said Interim Dean of the Graduate College Gabriela Olivares, who is leading the UNI@IACC initiative.
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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