Enrollment drops at Iowa's public universities

University of Northern Iowa announces new scholarships to attract applicants

The University of Iowa on Thursday reported its fall enrollment was 31,240 students, down from last year's 31,656 last y
The University of Iowa on Thursday reported its fall enrollment was 31,240 students, down from last year’s 31,656 last year. Enrollment was down at all three public universities in Iowa. (The Gazette)

Total enrollment — including total undergraduate enrollment — is down this fall at all of Iowa’s public universities, reflecting an increasingly competitive landscape, shifting demographics and fewer foreign students.

The extent of the drop is felt most sharply at the University of Northern Iowa, which lost 715 students compared with last fall — more than the 600 its president forecast.

Enrollment at the Cedar Falls school is 10,497, down from last fall’s 11,212, according to numbers released Thursday. That marks UNI’s lowest enrollment since 1975, when 10,181 enrolled.

UNI’s total non-resident enrollment — an important consideration because they pay higher tuition rates — is down to 1,103 this fall from 1,236. It has 105 non-resident freshmen, compared with 185 last fall.

Much of UNI’s decline came in its freshman class —with its 1,495 total count down 271 from last fall.

UNI’s undergraduate tally, which accounts for a large majority of its total, is 8,973 this fall, down from 9,561 last fall.

The University of Iowa reported 31,240 students this fall, down from 31,656 last year. Its 23,482 undergrads is close to last year’s 23,989.


The freshman class includes 4,986 new students, up from last year’s 4,806 new freshmen. But the freshman total from last fall, including transfer students, was 5,493.

UI officials declined Thursday to share the campus’ complete freshman count for this fall.

Iowa State University reported 33,391 total students this fall, down 1,601 from last fall.

ISU’s 28,294 undergrad tally is 1,327 below last year’s 29,621. And its 5,597 freshmen marked a drop in the first-year total of 6,249 last year.

Full enrollment reports — showing number of applicants, admissions and demographics — won’t be available until later this fall.


Each of the campuses did find bright spots in the enrollment report.

The UI campus boasted having its most academically accomplished class in its history.

“This fall’s incoming undergraduate class at the University of Iowa has yet again topped previous records in achievement, with a higher average high school GPA, at 3.76, than any previous class,” according to the UI Office of Strategic Communication.

Average high school GPAs for the UI Classes of 2022 and 2021 were 3.71 and 3.69, respectively.

And about 22 percent of this year’s UI freshmen — or 1,092 — are first-generation students. That’s up slightly from last year’s 1,015 students, or 21 percent, whose parents didn’t graduate from a four-year college.

ISU reported its freshmen class is the state’s largest, with more homegrown undergrads than other universities.

Nearly 60 percent of ISU undergrads — or 16,865 — are from Iowa, including 3,380 first-year students from Iowa high schools, up from last year’s 3,362.

Even with its bleak enrollment, UNI highlighted positive news in “important areas.”


Its four-year graduation rate is up 4 points to 44 percent, and its first-year, full-time retention rate is 83.4 percent.

“Our successes in graduation and retention are clear indicators of the value of a UNI education,” UNI President Mark Nook said in a statement.

Behind the decline

All three universities addressed their enrollment declines, albeit in different ways.

The UI pointed to its recent efforts to “manage” enrollment growth, which UI President Bruce Harreld has characterized as “right-sizing” to match resources.

ISU cited a record-setting 6,892 undergrads who earned degrees earlier this year, along with its rising four-year graduation rate, as playing a role in enrollment changes. Officials also acknowledged demographic shifts — fewer college-bound students, falling international enrollment and a strong economy luring more prospective pupils into the workforce early.

UNI referenced Iowa’s low unemployment rate and higher graduation rates as contributing to its enrollment decline.

UNI adds scholarships

UNI administrators are taking sweeping steps to stop the decline, such as offering new high-school graduates from outside Iowa an automatic $5,000 award upon admission.

Those students could land another $1,000 to $2,000 through the new “UNI Advantage program,” should they meet academic bench marks.


In addition to freezing tuition for all UNI students at all levels this fall, UNI has announced new scholarships for the 2020-21 academic year.

All Iowa residents who apply to UNI will be eligible for a “Panther Impact Award” of between $1,000 and $3,500 annually, based on standardized test scores and grade-point average. Students identifying with underrepresented populations can qualify for a “Unifying Through Excellence and Diversity” scholarship, which offers $1,000 to $2,000 a year based on academic performance.

And on top of the new “advantage” award for out-of-state students, legacy scholarships are available for non-residents who had parents, grandparents or siblings graduate from UNI. Those with a brother or sister currently attending also are eligible.

“Universities have become much more competitive in the last few years,” UNI President Nook said in a statement.

Foreign student drop

One important enrollment sector for Iowa’s public universities is international students, who pay high rates.

The number of students enrolled from other countries this year is down at all three public universities.

The UI reported 2,293 international students this fall, including 120 in its freshman class. That is down from 3,665 total and 186 freshmen.

ISU’s international total of 3,189 is down from last year’s 3,671.

And UNI has 385 international students, down from 480 last year.

“While we expect total enrollment will remain robust, any decline in student numbers, in addition to insufficient state support, has a significant budgetary impact,” ISU President Wendy Wintersteen said in a summer message warning of the decline.

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