Iowa community college enrollment drops, tuition swells

Officials urge community college role in COVID recovery

The Kirkwood Regional Center in Washington remains closed to the public but has annouced its plan to open for students i
The Kirkwood Regional Center in Washington remains closed to the public but has annouced its plan to open for students in the fall. In-person labs will be offered for five classes only. (Gretchen Teske/The Union)

IOWA CITY — Costs across Iowa’s 15 community college are rising, while total enrollment is falling — just like at their public and private higher education peers across the state.

A new 2020 Condition of Community Colleges in Iowa report released Tuesday shows enrollment of students taking classes for credit and students taking noncredit courses in the 2019-2020 term dropped 1.3 percent and 23.2 percent, respectively.

Those 2020 losses continue a steady enrollment decline in recent years after peaking with the Great Recession, which began in 2007. Noncredit enrollment — in skill-development programs aimed at helping students upgrade their job marketability — peaked in 2009, while credit-program enrollment peaked in 2011.

Numbers have been slumping since, despite online enrollment increases — especially with the rushed leap to all virtual learning in the spring amid the COVID-19 pandemic. And, even with lagging enrollment, community college officials are optimistic in their ability to help Iowa recover.

“Community colleges will continue to play a significant role in the economic recovery of the COVID-19 pandemic by training the workforce of the future,” according to the community college report, reiterating the sector’s relevance in meeting Iowa’s goal of getting 70 percent of its workforce some postsecondary education by 2025.

That goal converges with a looming enrollment cliff projected for the Midwest, propelled by shifting demographics and potentially accelerated by the pandemic. Affirming Iowa’s enrollment expectations of minority population growth, Iowa’s community colleges in the last year reported more diversity.

“Student diversity at Iowa community colleges continues to rise,” according to the report. “In 2007, only 10.6 percent of students represented racial or ethnic minorities.”

In the 2019-2020 year, that percentage reached a record high of 23.7 percent.


The majority of Iowa’s community college students still are white — at 76.3 percent. But the U.S. Census Bureau in 2019 estimated 14.2 percent of Iowans over age 15 were non-white, and 6.5 percent of that group was enrolled in an Iowa community college, representing “the highest penetration rate of minority students in community colleges nationally.”

“Iowa has led the nation in community college penetration rate of minority students for the past 11 years.”

And despite overall enrollment losses, the state’s community colleges — according to the new report — saw increases in “joint enrollment.”

A record high 51,800 high school students jointly enrolled in one or more community college courses during the 2019-2020 year, representing a 2.4 percent increase over last year.

“A growing segment of credit enrollment at Iowa community colleges is from jointly enrolled students, who accounted for 40.8 percent of total community college enrollment and over 25.6 percent of total credit hours.”

Although Iowa’s high school-aged populace is becoming more diverse, Iowa’s community college joint enrollment is less diverse than its overall enrollment. In the 2019-2020 term, 16.4 percent of jointly enrolled students identified as a minority, compared with the 23.7 percent of Iowa’s total community college enrollment and the 26 percent of students enrolled in Iowa’s public K-12 schools.

And online enrollment in Iowa’s community colleges also is surging — a trend likely to continue given the pandemic — with more students taking more credit hours virtually in the 2019-2020 year, reaching a record high 69,614 unduplicated students, up 11 percent over the 62,731 online students the year prior.

Although online participation increased even among noncredit-seeking students last year, the pandemic seemed to deliver its biggest blows in that category of total noncredit enrollment.


“In (annual year) 19-20, 145,814 individuals participated in noncredit programs and courses, representing a 23.2 percent decrease since last year,” according to the report.

That was twice the average 11.8 percent decrease in noncredit enrollment since 2016-17.

“While COVID-19 seems to have impacted overall noncredit enrollment and contact hours, online noncredit enrollment increased 15.5 percent in (annual year) 19-20 from the previous year,” according to the report. “Overall, 9.7 percent of all students enrolled in noncredit coursework received education through online delivery in AY19-20 compared to the 6.4 percent the previous year.”

Experts have said COVID has and could continue impacting higher education enrollment by muting of the traditional on-campus experience, creating new personal health and family issues, and delivering economic blows making tuition out of reach.

Current average in-state tuition for Iowa community college students is $179.38 per credit hour, a 3.3 percent increase. The current average annual cost to attend a community college in Iowa — including both tuition and fees — for a full-time Iowan taking 24 hours is $4,686.38.

Given tuition for years has posed a barrier to higher education, and COVID exacerbated the situation, community colleges have had to get creative.

“To combat all of these hurdles to enrollment, Kirkwood Community College took a proactive approach to signing students up for classes,” according to the report, highlighting a program called “Kirkwood Kickstart.”

That program combined grants for new students adversely affected by COVID with free classes.

“With the pandemic in full swing along with the resulting economic crisis, the cost of getting an education was likely to be an even bigger issue for a greater number of people,” according to the report. “To help offset any financial issues, (Kirkwood)’s plan was to award up to $2,000 in CARES Act money to use toward education-related expenses for new students financially affected by COVID.”

The money could go toward rent, groceries, health care, child care, or other costs.

Preceding the start of the fall 2020 semester, Kirkwood had awarded 241 grants, totaling $428,000.

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