Higher ed enrollment drops across Iowa

Iowa community colleges take average 5.8 percent hit

University of Iowa junior Kiley Kovac, left, and senior Emily Studnicka take a walk together on a break from studying fo
University of Iowa junior Kiley Kovac, left, and senior Emily Studnicka take a walk together on a break from studying for online classes in Iowa City on Friday, April 3, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Enrollment across Iowa’s public, private and community colleges this fall dropped 4.7 percent from a year ago — nearly double the 2.5 percent decline nationally in postsecondary enrollment.

Fall 2020 college and university enrollment in Iowa dropped across all sectors, with community colleges taking a 5.8 percent hit and nonprofit private campuses collectively losing 3 percent of their total enrollment, according to Iowa College Aid, a state agency charged with making college accessible for Iowans.

Iowa’s public universities — the University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa — collectively reported enrollment losses of 4.4 percent from fall 2019 to fall 2020, including their graduate and undergraduate students. Their combined undergrad enrollment fell nearly 5.3 percent.

That was just above the state’s total undergraduate enrollment drop of 5.2 percent — all losses that Iowa College Aid spokeswoman Elizabeth Keest Sedrel said aren’t surprising “given the economic concerns many families have experienced, as well as uncertainty about whether colleges would offer in-person instruction and campus housing this fall.”

Additionally, some of the students who initially enrolled hoping for some semblance of collegiate normalcy — and who signed up to live in the residence halls — withdrew or canceled housing contracts after arriving this fall to find a vastly different campus experience.

UI Housing and Dining reported 912 contract cancellations between Aug. 1 and Dec. 10 — 674 of which were canceled after fall classes started Aug. 24. During the same period in 2019, UI reported only 217 canceled housing contracts, 114 of which came after the start of classes.

This fall’s spike at the UI likely is related, in part, to the hybrid nature of instruction. As of Sept. 2, 76 percent of undergraduate credit hours there were being taught online. That comes to 3,469 of all classes, compared with just 621 online classes in fall 2019.


For full curricular withdrawals, the UI reported in late October that 301 students had unenrolled through the first nine weeks of the semester, compared with 243 in the same period of 2019.

ISU, which wrapped up its fall semester earlier than usual the day before Thanksgiving, reported 391 withdrawals this fall, up slightly over the 345 in fall 2019.

But the campus saw more housing contracts canceled last year, with 413, than this fall’s 318.

UNI, likewise, saw a similar phenomenon. It reported 253 canceled housing contracts last fall and only 144 cancellations in 2020. But its total fall 2019 withdrawals also topped 2020 — 379 compared with 351.

The fewer withdrawals and housing cancellations could be tied to the initial enrollment drops that indicate many students had already decided to pause their higher education pursuits because of the pandemic.

UNI, for example, saw a 9.3 percent drop in total enrollment this fall from last; ISU reported a student drop of 4.7 percent; and the UI reported a 2.5 percent dip in total enrollment this fall.

The public universities’ out-of-state enrollment saw the smallest loss at 1.4 percent, followed by an Iowa residential enrollment decline of 4 percent and a massive 20 percent drop in international student enrollment. Students from other states and other countries pay higher tuition rates than do Iowa residents.

Both the UI and ISU saw a 10-percent drop in first-year students, while UNI actually reported a 3.4 percent uptick in freshmen. Still, UNI reported the biggest undergraduate drop of 7.5 percent, compared with 5.1 percent at ISU and 4.6 percent at the UI.

Among Iowa’s community colleges, only one welcomed more students this fall — Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs, reporting 5,930 this fall compared with 5,322 last.


Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City reported a 13.4 percent drop of more than 1,902 students.

Among Iowa’s private colleges, only a handful welcomed more students.

Iowa Wesleyan University in Mount Pleasant, which struggled in recent years and nearly closed two years ago, reported a nearly 18 percent enrollment bump from 645 to 758 students.

Cedar Rapids’ Coe College and Mount Mercy University reported losses of 37 and 103 students, respectively. Cornell College in Mount Vernon reported a slight enrollment dip of 18 students.

Like in Iowa, community colleges nationally “suffered the most from enrollment decline,” according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

“Public two-year institutions, in line with what we have documented throughout this fall, recorded enrollment losses of over 544,200 students or 10.1 percent over last year,” according to the center’s fall report.

Scanning the country, Iowa’s enrollment losses appeared moderate — according to clearinghouse data — with some states like Alaska, Michigan, and New Mexico reporting drops topping 9 percent. Although most states reported some degree of enrollment decline, a few reported increases — including New Hampshire, which saw a 16 percent jump.

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