Iowa community college enrollment dips as tuition rises

But minority population reaches all-time high

A portion of the Kirkwood Community College campus is shown in an aerial photograph in Cedar Rapids. (Gazette file photo
A portion of the Kirkwood Community College campus is shown in an aerial photograph in Cedar Rapids. (Gazette file photo)

Iowa’s community college enrollment is down while the cost to attend is up. But the institutions collectively still serve more than half of all Iowans pursuing postsecondary education, and they’ve increased their reach to the state’s growing minority population.

The Annual Condition of Iowa’s Community Colleges report released this week — recounting highlights from 2018 — shows combined credit enrollment in Iowa’s 15 community colleges dipped 1.2 percent, to 131,144 students, taking nearly 1.8 million credits.

But minority enrollment ticked up to a record high 22.4 percent of that total — meeting demographic demand in this state as data indicates Iowa’s minority population is young and growing.

Minorities in Iowa’s public school districts reached an all-time high of 113,076 — or 24 percent of the student body — in the 2016-17 school year, according to a 2018 report on the condition of higher education in Iowa. That data revealed the percent of white-only Iowans under 18 fell from 87 percent in 2005 to 79 percent in 2016.

“As a result, Iowa now has more minority students than ever in the pool of potential college graduates,” according to Iowa College Aid’s Condition of Higher Education report.

According to this week’s report on community colleges, the U.S. Census Bureau in 2017 estimated 12.3 percent of Iowans over age 15 were non-white, and of that group 8.1 percent were enrolled in Iowa’s community colleges, “representing the highest penetration rate of minority students in community colleges nationally.”

The new report also highlighted a 2.3 percent increase in “joint enrollment” students — those taking community college courses while in high school — with 51,001 high schoolers accounting for nearly 39 percent of total community college enrollees and 24.1 percent of the total credits.

Of those students, 183 earned associate degrees simultaneously with their high school diploma.


High school efforts to better prepare students, along with streamlined collegiate efforts around academic skill building, could be paying off as developmental education enrollment in the community colleges — undergraduate courses designed to help underprepared students — decreased 11.4 percent in one year.

Community colleges also saw noncredit enrollment decrease about 5 percent — with 204,233 students taking 5.9 million hours of skill-enhancement and training contact hours.

Administrators across the community college spectrum have said while they like to see enrollment upticks rather than dips, the downward trend since a spike around the 2008 recession — and the years that immediately followed — makes sense.

And even with the enrollment drops and leveling in Iowa, community college advocates are stressing the paramount role the institutions play in supporting the state’s economy and helping it reach a goal of getting 70 percent of its workforce some form of postsecondary education by 2025 — a level economists have projected will become necessary to fill the jobs being created.

In reporting that Iowa’s 15 community colleges educate 50.6 percent of all residents enrolled in public or private two- and four-year postsecondary institutions, the new community college assessment notes this state has a nearly 10-percentage-point edge over the national average of 41 percent, as reported by the American Association of Community Colleges.

Echoing community college advocacy for diversity in education and training — beyond traditional four-year university degrees — and the state funding to support it, the new report spells out the community college return on investment.

Collectively, they contributed $5.4 billion to the state’s economy and supported 107,170 jobs — or 6 percent of the total in Iowa — during the 2014-15 budget year, the most recent data available.

In addition, the assessment reports taxpayers receive on average $3.50 over the working lives of students for every $1 of public money spent on educating students at Iowa’s community colleges.


“In return for every dollar students invest in the form of out-of-pocket expenses and forgone time and money, they receive a cumulative of $6.50 in higher future earnings,” according to the report. “Over a working lifetime, the average associate degree completer will see an increase in earnings amounting to an undiscounted value of approximately $418,000.”

The Annual Condition of Iowa’s Community Colleges report can be viewed at

But getting more state aid has been a hard sell in recent years — as budget woes and revenue hits have prompted lawmakers and the governor to approve midyear cuts and deappropriations for public universities and community colleges.

That had the consequential effect of driving up tuition rates for all Iowa’s community colleges — with average tuition and fees per credit hour for in-state students rising from about $176 in the 2017-18 year to more than $182 in the 2018-19 term.

That amounts to an average 3.7 percent bump, with many reporting in that range for annual increases.

Cedar Rapids-based Kirkwood Community College, with its $7 in-state tuition bump, reports a 4.3 percent increase — but that doesn’t include its $25 flat fee raise. When adding that in, based on a 15-credit-hour semester, Kirkwood’s cost to attend is going up about 5.3 percent.

Kirkwood spokesman Justin Hoehn said the college still is assessing rates for next year — depending on state appropriations and enrollment figures. But if Gov. Kim Reynolds’ budget recommendation earlier this week is any indication, increases could be smaller.

Reynolds is proposing for community colleges nearly $5 million more than they requested in general aid in the 2020 budget year and more than $9 million more for 2021.

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