Higher education

Iowa State expecting enrollment slowdown

Interim president looking to set university's next leader up for success

Iowa State University interim president Ben Allen. (Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University)



Allen is serving as a senior policy adviser to President Leath through May 8, 2017, and assumes the interim president role on May 9, 2017. He’ll remain in that role until Iowa State’s next president arrives.
Iowa State University interim president Ben Allen. (Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University) Allen is serving as a senior policy adviser to President Leath through May 8, 2017, and assumes the interim president role on May 9, 2017. He’ll remain in that role until Iowa State’s next president arrives.

Iowa State University’s decade of soaring enrollment is expected to level off this year, according to interim President Ben Allen, citing a drop in international applications and high school graduation trends across Iowa.

After setting enrollment records for eight consecutive years and growing 44 percent in the past 10 years, ISU officials said the campus might see an enrollment dip next fall — although the university doesn’t provide preliminary numbers of applications, admissions and acceptances.

“I can say I think the rapid growth that we’ve seen in the last four or five years here probably won’t be taking place for this coming year,” Allen told The Gazette.

Allen, who this month stepped in as interim ISU president, said his goal in the temporary role is to set up the university’s next leader for success — holding the campus steady in some categories, pushing it forward in others and stalling several appointments and pending actions.

The anticipated leveling off in enrollment is indicative of that measured stance as the Board of Regents embarks on a search to replace former ISU President Steven Leath, who left earlier this month for the presidency at Auburn University.

ISU’s enrollment explosion, which in 2013 pushed the Ames campus past the University of Iowa as the state’s largest university, has created growing pains — as state support has fallen further behind and resources have become increasingly strained.

Leath, before he left, said the university planned to taper growth intentionally. But Allen told The Gazette some of the enrollment stabilization is the natural result of this state’s changing high school population and shifts in the higher education landscape.

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“We have fewer students and there’s more competition for those students,” he said, noting additional “issues surrounding international students, in terms of the changes at the national level.”

“Some changes in the perception of how we welcome international students — that creates some problems,” he said.

Iowa State is expecting a decrease in international students next fall, although the university hasn’t released specific figures. Meanwhile, Allen said, the campus is taking extra measures to make sure those who do enroll from abroad are supported.

“We are reaching out more this summer to make sure all the international students feel welcome,” he said.

Allen said he doesn’t believe rising tuition rates and the potential for growing class sizes are behind the enrollment slowdown, noting Iowa State is at the bottom among peer institutions in resident undergraduate tuition rates.

“That tuition structure has to be more in alignment with the cost of providing what we think is the world class education that we provide here,” Allen said.

The Board of Regents last fall approved a 2 percent tuition increase for resident undergraduates for the 2017-18 school year. After lawmakers in the recent legislative session cut a total $30.3 million from its base appropriations for Iowa’s public universities, the board proposed another 3 percent tuition increase — meaning resident undergraduates could pay 5 percent more this fall than last.

Allen conceded the timing of the anticipated increase is not ideal — as the start of the fall semester will be just two months out when the board considers final approval in June. But, he said, the money is paramount to make up for the state reductions.

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“I support it only because we need those revenues to maintain the quality of education that students receive here,” he said. “The timing was not good. I appreciate the challenges that creates for parents and students for budgeting for college. But, unfortunately, we had to take action at the last minute.”

The Board of Regents this summer plans to convene a work group with lawmakers to discuss the future of tuition and perhaps map out scheduled increases, at least enabling families and prospective students to plan ahead.

“We do need to start thinking about tuition now for the next year and the year after — looking at a different structure that I think is more reasonable, more transparent, and maybe most importantly more predictable, so that parents can plan and budget accordingly.”

That work group, among other things, could discuss whether the resident undergraduate tuition rates at Iowa’s three public universities should be more different from each other than they’ve been historically. But Allen noted non-resident and graduate variances, along with differential tuition within each campus depending on program, already sets them apart to some degree.

“It’s heading in that direction,” he said, adding, “I think that could be part of the discussion involving the Board of Regents task force.”

The additional tuition increases scheduled for consideration in June are expected to generate a total $25.7 million — $16.5 million for UI, $7.1 million for ISU, and $2 million for UNI. That revenue won’t make up for all of the $11.5 million in state funding losses at Iowa State — necessitating other cost-cutting measures and efficiencies.

“We’ll get through it, but everyone’s sharing the pain a bit,” Allen said, noting layoffs are not expected at this time.

While trying to weather the budget storm and moderate the inhibiting growth, Allen said he hopes to maintain the momentum that Iowa State has developed over the past five years — setting it up for sustained excellence under a new leader.

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That includes keeping the university on track in its fundraising campaign, and moving ahead projects in the information technology and human resources departments. He’s holding open some vice president positions — as those are often posts presidents like to fill.

“I want to make sure that the train keeps running but also that the momentum that the university had is maintained,” he said.

l Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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