IOWA CITY — After peaking in 2001 at more than 14,000 students, the University of Northern Iowa’s steady decline in enrollment is expected to continue this fall with a dip below 11,000 for the first time since 1982.
UNI President Mark Nook on Thursday told The Gazette that although projections are in flux, his administrative team is building a budget for 10,600 students in the fall — which, if realized, would mark a 600-student drop from last fall and UNI’s lowest enrollment in 43 years.
The last time the Cedar Falls campus reported such low numbers was in 1976 when 10,537 were enrolled for credit and 9,699 were taking courses on campus, according to UNI’s Rod Library.
Northern Iowa’s sister institutions governed by the Board of Regents — the University of Iowa and Iowa State University — had for years been fielding larger freshmen classes and total student bodies, straining resources being slashed by lawmakers and driving administrators to actively slow growth.
The UI student total dropped last fall from 33,564 to 32,948. Although Iowa State welcomed a slightly larger freshman class last year, its total tally also dropped from 36,321 to 35,435.
Finding the right enrollment level — including the best blend of in-state and out-of-state students — is imperative as the institutions strive to maintain quality in a higher education landscape that has fewer resources and more competition, not just for the best and brightest students, but faculty and staff.
UNI last year set a five-year enrollment goal of 13,500 total students by 2023, which Nook said he hopes to reach — in part — by keeping his school’s tuition stable and more competitive with regional peers, increasing the gap between its rates and those at the UI and ISU.
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“The basis of the plan is to try to hold it level for a while,” Nook said of tuition, which UNI kept unchanged for all students at all levels this fall — the only one of Iowa’s public universities to do so.
Iowa State and the UI are increasing base tuition rates for resident undergraduate students 3.9 percent next fall — with costs going up more for graduate and undergraduates in costlier programs. Those universities have room to raise rates, Nook said, as their research university peers are more expensive.
UNI isn’t in the same position, as some of its competitors are cheaper, and he hopes over time to build a base rate gap of about $2,000 between it and UI and ISU.
This fall, resident undergraduate tuition will be $8,073 at Iowa, $8,042 at Iowa State and $7,665 at UNI — a gap of about $400.
“We’re overpriced,” Nook said, adding he’d even consider decreasing the cost to attend UNI if lawmakers provided enough support to make that financially possible without harming quality.
“But that’s a pretty big ask,” he said.
Nook made his comments during the Iowa City Noon Rotary meeting, during which he reported ways UNI students are affecting the state and Johnson County, in particular. He reported 303 current UNI students are from Johnson County, and about 2,600 UNI alumni live there.
Known for its teaching programs, UNI has more than 200 graduates working in the Iowa City Community School District, he said.
“And a little over 200 are employed as faculty and staff at the University of Iowa,” Nook said.
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When asked about UNI’s biggest challenge — which the UI and ISU presidents have flagged as declining resources — Nook pointed back to enrollment.
“I’m open about this,” he said. “And that creates budget problems. But we don’t have a budget problem. We have an enrollment problem that’s affecting our budget.”
One of the main reasons UNI is struggling to recruit students, he said, is “this hot economy.” With a majority of its students coming from Iowa, and Iowa reporting among the lowest unemployment rates in the nation at 2.4 percent — topped only by North Dakota at 2.3 percent and Vermont at 2.2 percent — potential Panthers increasingly are tempted by good-paying jobs right out of high school.
“I love the hot economy for our graduates,” he said. “But I hate it for our enrollment.”
Upping UNI’s enrollment will help not only the school and its community, but the entire state, Nook said, in that UNI has a strong reputation of placing graduates in Iowa jobs — helping retain those who migrate from other states.
“We bring people to the state, and we keep people in the state,” Nook said.
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