University presidents report falling enrollment as they ask Iowa lawmakers for more state support

UI President Bruce Harreld reports pandemic-related losses continuing this spring

The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa in Iowa City holds the Old Capitol (center), Macbride Hall (top l
The Pentacrest on the campus of the University of Iowa in Iowa City holds the Old Capitol (center), Macbride Hall (top left), Jessup Hall (bottom left), Schaeffer Hall (top right), and MacLean Hall (bottom right). (The Gazette/file photo)

The presidents of Iowa’s three public universities on Wednesday told state lawmakers about the toll the pandemic is taking on their campuses’ enrollment and asked the state to increase its support of higher education.

They also told the legislators why they oppose a proposed bill that would end faculty tenure at the universities.

University of Northern Iowa President Mark Nook told the education appropriations subcommittee his campus has had a net enrollment loss of about 1,000 students this school year.

Iowa State University in the fall reported its enrollment was down by nearly 5 percent — or 1,566 students — from the previous fall.

And University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld on Wednesday reported his campus lost more than 1,000 students in the fall.

“We’ve also had another reduction of people not coming back for the spring semester, which started last week,” Harreld said.

Registrar’s offices with the three public universities haven’t yet released official student counts s for the spring semester, which began Jan. 25 and will be conducted much like the fall semester — in hybrid fashion, with a majority of courses happening online rather than in person.


In asking for more state support after summer appropriations cuts, university leaders warned tuition revenue right now is less reliable, given student departures and tuition freezes aimed at helping students continue their education through the pandemic.

“The big question is, how many are going to come back? And when are they going to come back?” Harreld told lawmakers. “And we really don’t know.”

Gap year

Having taught a business course last semester, Harreld said he understands why students would want to take a “gap year” to ride out the pandemic.

“Would you like to be at home every day sitting in a chair, going through what we’re doing?” Harreld asked. “It’s hard for us. Imagine if you’re that age. It’s hard to teach. It’s hard to learn. It’s hard to stay engaged. And, again, we have courses that are really hard.

“And so the outcome has been that some people check out.”

Harreld said the universities have been discussing how to best stay connected with students who’ve unenrolled.

“Because the data is pretty clear. Once you start people, they will tend to stay at a higher rate,” Harreld said. “Once they drop out, it’s really hard to get them back. And I don’t know whether these students are actually dropped out or paused out.”

Legislative help

With the campuses already facing enrollment declines due to changing demographics and declining birthrates, Harreld stressed the importance of retaining academic excellence in attracting students — including those who halted or paused their academic pursuits.

That, according to all three of the university heads, is where the Legislature can help.

The Board of Regents is asking lawmakers to restore the $8 million they cut last summer and to boost general education funding by another $18 million — $7 million each for the UI and ISU and $4 million for UNI. The universities said they’re doing their part to find efficiencies.

Gov. Kim Reynolds is proposing a $15 million increase for the coming fiscal year and a $30 million increase in fiscal 2023.

Tuition increases

The UI and ISU are planning to raise tuition in the fall, following a five-year increase model — with rate hikes dependent on legislative support, tying together the universities’ two largest funding streams.

“What’s been happening is we have the lowest tuition among most of our peer groups, and we’ve gotten defunded, de-appropriated by you,” Harreld said. “I’m not complaining. It’s just the facts. You’ve had a lot of other pressures on you.


“But the net of those two independently has been really the reason why we’re so efficient,” he said. “It’s why we’re winning awards for administrative efficiency. We’ve had to get quite creative. … But we’re kind of at the end of that rope.”

UNI also tied together legislative appropriations with tuition rates — noting it would like to keep rates frozen but needs state support to do that.

Tenure-bill opposed

The university chiefs voiced strong opposition to a legislative proposal to bar their campuses from offering professors tenure — an academic appointment giving faculty a higher level of job security that’s meant to encourage “the free exchange of ideas and inquiry.”

ISU President Wendy Wintersteen said she competes daily with top-tier universities offering faculty tenure.

“Why would they come here when they can go to Purdue, Wisconsin or Illinois?” she said. “I just won’t be able to compete in the market. And it won’t be just the recruitment of the very best faculty for research, teaching and extension. But I will lose faculty. They will see it as an embarrassment that they are now at an institution where tenure is prohibited.

“This will hurt us terribly.”

Harreld said UI faculty already are underpaid relative to their peers, and the loss of tenure likely will be the final straw.

“I think you should anticipate in the next three to five years, zero to five years, a pretty substantial exodus,” Harreld said, reporting the campuses would need to increase faculty pay to keep people from leaving.

And, he warned, legislating tenure risks politicizing the academic and research enterprise.

“And as we start politicizing where we put research, and how faculty conduct research, we’re starting to tilt the scale of the outcomes of that research,” Harreld said. “And I think we should al, as citizens, be real concerned about that.

“We are held — up until the last few years — as the pinnacle of higher education in the world,” he said. “And that may change.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158;

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.