Enrollment declines at Iowa Board of Regents universities

Iowa, Iowa State boast academic rigor of new freshman class

A Board of Regents meeting at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City on Wednesday, Sep. 6, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
A Board of Regents meeting at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City on Wednesday, Sep. 6, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

At a time of managed growth and state funding cuts, University of Iowa on Thursday announced it has welcomed a smaller freshman class this fall of 4,806 students — down from 5,027 last year and 5,643 the fall before.

Those numbers have the total UI student tally down from 33,564 last year to 32,948 — figures that include postgraduate students.

Iowa State University, while also trying to slow what has been explosive growth in recent years, announced a slight uptick in freshmen — with 6,047, which is 103 more than last year. Its total student count, though, came down from last year’s 36,321 to 35,435 — which also includes postgraduates.

That keeps ISU cemented as Iowa’s largest public university after surpassing UI for that title most recently in 2013.

University of Northern Iowa, like UI, is reporting total and freshman drops from last year. The UNI student body of 11,212 — down from 11,907 last fall — is well below a UNI five-year goal of 13,500. Its freshman class of 1,661 is smaller than last year’s 1,834 and the prior year’s 2,000.

UNI officials — who, unlike their counterparts at UI and ISU, have made public their desire to grow — in a news release said they were expecting the decline and thus have budgeted for it.

The UI and ISU, despite their enrollment dips, are projecting more tuition revenue this fall — thanks to across-the-board tuition increases, including 3.8 percent jumps for resident undergraduates and higher dollar increases for students in costlier programs.

The UI in August projected a $5.5 million increase in tuition revenue, helping to counter a midyear state cut of $5.2 million. ISU projected a $10.2 million increase in tuition revenue, countering a similar state cut of $5.4 million.

The UNI at that time anticipated losing $1.6 million in tuition revenue, although it still expected a small half-million total revenue increase because it didn’t suffer any midyear cuts and took a $2 million appropriations raise for the 2019 budget year.

But even with those increases, state cuts over time — which have dragged appropriations down more than $35 million since the start of 2017 — have hit the campuses hard, with UI President Bruce Harreld, for example, halting new construction for five months, freezing faculty pay, closing campus centers and eliminating some scholarships.

The Board of Regents next week will consider asking lawmakers to make amends for reductions with a $20 million bump in the 2020 budget year, which begins next summer. The universities have vowed to use that support, if lawmakers grant it, on student financial aid.

The universities, meanwhile, have warned students and families to be prepared for years of tuition increases as they climb closer to levels charged at peer institutions.

The enrollment ups and downs — along with tuition hikes countered by aid opportunities — play into the budget balance Iowa’s public universities must strike between needing more tuition revenue to offset state cuts while ensuring enough resources to accommodate the students they take.

And UI and ISU leaders on Thursday stressed the academic excellence of those students, with UI calling its new class of 2020 the “most academically accomplished class in its history.”

The first-year class, specifically, has a higher average high school GPA at 3.71 than any before it.

“I’m delighted to welcome this outstanding new class to a campus full of possibilities,” UI Interim Provost Sue Curry said in a statement. “The opportunity to learn and thrive at a major research university will be transformative.”

Iowa State also boasted about the academic rigor of its new students, reporting they too collectively have the highest-ever average high school GPA of 3.64.             

“I’m delighted to introduce such a highly qualified class to the exceptional student experience, teaching and research that we offer at Iowa State,” ISU President Wendy Wintersteen said in a statement. “I know they will thrive, learn and grow in ways that will change our world for the better.”

All three universities have projected fewer international students this year than last — although UI officials said their final count won’t be available until October or November. ISU on Thursday announced 3,691 international students this fall, compared with 4,115 last year. UNI has 480 compared with 547 last year.

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