CORONAVIRUS

Iowa State, Northern Iowa report enrollment declines amid pandemic

'The impact of COVID-19 has been profound'

A sign marks the beginning of the COVID-19 testing line and check-in for students moving into campus housing at Lied Rec
A sign marks the beginning of the COVID-19 testing line and check-in for students moving into campus housing at Lied Recreation Center at Iowa State University in Ames on Monday, Aug. 3, 2020. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

Both Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa reported shrinking enrollments Thursday, with ISU down 1,566 students and UNI down 975 amid pandemic conditions requiring more online learning and curtailing many college traditions.

As part of the decline, ISU saw its new freshmen total fall off 9.3 percent — from 5,597 last year to 5,071 now, an acceleration of a 7.4 percent first-year student decrease seen a year ago.

The Ames institution’s total enrollment decline from 33,391 to 31,825, however, amounts to a 4.7 percent drop — about the same it experienced last fall, before the arrival of COVID-19, when enrollment slipped 4.6 percent from 2018.

Because ISU and UNI started the semester Aug. 17, earlier than usual, while the University of Iowa kept its start date at Aug. 24, the UI is not releasing enrollment numbers until Sept. 10.

UNI diversity improves

UNI officials said its smaller total numbers reflect “not only the impact of COVID-19 and immigration challenges, but also UNI’s success in increasing its three-year and five-year graduation rates.”

Despite the pandemic — which has prompted students nationally to question the value of paying usual tuition rates for hybrid learning — UNI this fall welcomed slightly more freshmen than last, with 1,482 compared with 1,465.

Those increases can largely be credited to UNI’s push to recruit more out-of-state students, which saw a 38 percent bump. UNI’s out-of-state enrollment increased from 718 last fall to 1,067 this year. Its in-state enrollment dropped from 9,394 to 8,455.

“In a reflection of UNI’s strategic efforts to recruit more students of color, the university also welcomed its most diverse new student class ever,” according to a UNI statement. “More than 12.1 percent of new freshmen and 18.1 percent of new transfer students enrolled this semester self-reported as members of racial and ethnic minority groups.”

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Those numbers represent increases from 9.6 percent of freshmen and 15.5 percent of new transfer students last fall.

UNI President Mark Nook said his campus is glad to see those percentages growing.

“While the university continues to find ways to make UNI a more inclusive place for all students and employees, this is an important milestone I hope we repeat each year,” he said in a statement.

Part of UNI’s total enrollment loss relates to fewer part-time students after the campus cut some continuing education workshops for teachers and other professionals.

“Those reductions alone account for approximately one-third of the decline in fall 2020 enrollment,” according to UNI. “The university also saw a slight decline in resident transfer students, reflecting a decision by some students to delay transferring in the current environment.”

Campus officials told The Gazette that 95 students have withdrawn this semester — including 69 in the first week.

But new freshmen planning to start UNI in the spring semester is more than double last year’s number.

“The impact of COVID-19 has been profound,” Nook said in a statement. “The world looks much different than when students may have first applied. But we’re confident that the world-class, affordable education UNI offers will continue to attract students and that, working together, we will deliver that education in this unprecedented time.”

ISU: Higher GPA

ISU had 40 students withdraw in the first two weeks, which ISU spokeswoman Angie Hunt said is typical, noting 43 withdrew through the same period last fall.

While ISU saw fewer total students and fewer freshmen — including drops in both its in-state and out-of-state totals — its first-year class averaged a record 3.71 grade-point average, which research has shown to be the best predictor of college completion at ISU, according to Laura Doering, associate vice president of enrollment management.

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She said the enrollment losses were expected due to COVID-19, immigration challenges and Iowa’s shifting demographics — which, long before the pandemic, were predicted to create a future enrollment cliff.

ISU also reported a record one-year retention rate, with 88.5 percent of first-year students coming back for a second year. Given COVID-19, ISU President Wendy Wintersteen said that’s remarkable.

“Last year’s first-year students didn’t have a typical experience with the transition to virtual instruction after spring break,” Wintersteen said. “The fact that these students are returning in record numbers shows their resiliency. It also reflects the work of so many faculty and staff on campus to support students by providing flexibility in courses and support services.”

ISU reported 2,592 international students this fall, down from 3,303 last year. UNI, too, reported a dip in international students — from 385 to 350, aligning with expectations from immigration issues and the pandemic.

But ISU announced a new learning community this fall for first-year international students who couldn’t enter the country to attend class on campus. The entirely-virtual “International Adventure” learning community allows international students to take common courses, to connect and to receive peer mentor support while exploring career opportunities internationally.

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

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