IOWA CITY — Roughly 2,000 fewer students are taking courses from Iowa’s public universities this summer than last after the COVID-19 pandemic forced instruction into online-only mode in mid-March — where it remains.
The institutions plan to bring students back to campus for a “hybrid” fall semester — some in-person instruction, with larger classes staying online — but this summer’s 2,226-student enrollment drop could serve as a preview of losses administrators project for the academic year.
Iowa State University this summer saw the biggest enrollment decline of the three universities with a drop of 961 students — down to 9,845 from 10,806 and continuing its summer slide from 12,060 in 2017.
The University of Iowa enrolled 857 fewer students this summer than last, slipping from 12,019 to 11,162. And the University of Northern Iowa has 408 fewer students during these off months — with 2,989, compared with 3,397 last summer.
UNI spokesman Steve Schmadeke said a large chunk of his campus’ drop can be tied to study abroad cancellations. All three of Iowa’s public universities repatriated study abroad students mid-March and canceled programs that had planned to leave over spring break, in the summer and now in the fall.
“If that impact were removed, we would have seen a small enrollment increase,” Schmadeke said. “Enrollment in online courses has increased dramatically this summer due, in part, to the shift online of some in-person sections.”
The enrollment statistics include both undergraduate- and graduate-level students.
While ISU lost numbers in both categories, the UI actually enrolled 174 more graduate students this summer than last — with its School of Management logging the biggest gains — bumping its graduate student total to nearly 3,000 and mitigating the undergraduate decrease of 1,060.
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At the undergraduate level, the UI saw its largest loss in its largest College of Liberal Arts and Sciences — which reported 507 fewer students this summer than last.
That amounts to a 12 percent decrease for the college. At the larger university level, undergraduate enrollment this summer slipped nearly 16 percent.
Earlier this year, in discussing the fallout from COVID-19 with Iowa’s Board of Regents, UI President Bruce Harreld warned this fall’s freshman class could be down 9 to 10 percent. ISU and UNI have noted similar warnings.
And UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean Steve Goddard recently told more than 400 faculty and staff their college alone could see enrollment down 10 to 15 percent this fall — necessitating deep budget cuts involving furloughs, lost raises and layoffs, among other things.
UI students who were surveyed about their spring experience taking all online courses gave mixed responses — with many acknowledging the faculty challenge of making the swift shift but also voicing vast preference for more traditional, in-person learning.
That broad sentiment is, in part, behind the systemwide push to bring students back this fall — even as COVID-19 cases continue to surge in many Iowa counties, including in the university counties of Johnson, Story and Black Hawk.
Students are being welcomed back into residence and dining halls — albeit with new safety precautions.
UI Dean Goddard has said if enough students don’t return, “We will have much more severe budget cuts.”
And ISU Provost Jonathan Wickert said it this way in a recent communication to employees:
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Students “place a great value not only on their interactions with faculty in the classroom, but also their interactions in advising appointments, during office hours, and through faculty service to student organizations,” he said.
“Some students are likely to take a gap year, or seek an alternative closer to home, rather than enroll in a substantial number of online courses,” he cautioned. “Such a scenario would result in lower enrollments, and negatively impact the university’s academic mission for years to come.”
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