Thousands of students didn't return to Iowa universities for spring semester

Spring enrollment down 7% from fall at UI, down 8% at ISU, down 9% at UNI

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

IOWA CITY — Thousands of students who enrolled in one of Iowa’s public universities in the fall — despite the raging pandemic promising a vastly different collegiate experience — did not return for the spring semester, according to new campus census numbers made public Tuesday.

The University of Iowa’s spring enrollment of 28,320 is down about 7 percent from the fall’s 30,448 count — which already was continuing the campus’ steady enrollment decline from a peak of 32,323 in fall 2017.

Iowa State University’s spring 2021 student count of 29,368 is down nearly 8 percent from its fall enrollment of 31,825, which was down 12 percent from that campus’ peak of 36,353 in fall 2016.

And University of Northern Iowa this spring reports 8,680 students, down nearly 9 percent from its fall enrollment of 9,522 — which was about 20 percent below the 12,000 fall enrollment figure UNI had sustained for years until it started to slide in fall 2018.

Although the universities typically lose some students from fall to spring in any academic year, university administrators have acknowledged the unique challenges facing this year’s students — and the equally unparalleled complexities for faculty and administrators trying to keep their classes educated, engaged, and enrolled.

“Would you like to be at home every day sitting in a chair, going through what we’re doing?” UI President Bruce Harreld asked lawmakers last week during a discussion about the Board of Regents’ appropriations request.

“It’s hard for us,” he said. “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.”


Although the universities have made clear their mission of educating students efficiently — aiming for four years in hopes of limiting student bills and getting them earnings sooner — UI spokeswoman Anne Basset said administrators realize that timeline might not make the most sense for everyone right now.

“While our goal is to help students stay in school so they can graduate in four years, we understand the particular challenges brought on by the pandemic,” she said, referencing the notion some have chosen to take a gap year.

“The team in the Academic Support and Retention Office has been actively engaged with students who have chosen to step away, and we hope to have them back on campus this coming fall.”

Although about three-fourths of UI’s instruction in fall 2020 occurred virtually — meaning just a quarter took the more traditional in-person mode — administrators have promised a shift back toward standard college operations next fall.

Although the campus will maintain many of its new safety measures, most classes forced online this term will be back in person in the next. Where all classes enrolling 50 or more students this year were virtual — affecting large swaths of undergraduates and first- and second-year students — only select classes over 150 people next year will be.

“The goal is to hold as many face-to-face courses as possible while maintaining flexibility,” according to a recent UI campus message.

In addition to being down compared to the fall semester, the campuses’ spring 2021 enrollment numbers are down from previous springs — aligning with annual enrollment losses and concerns among administrators about resources, as the universities rely most heavily on tuition revenue and state appropriations for their general education funding.

Citing a demographic-fueled enrollment cliff facing the Midwest before the pandemic, Iowa’s public universities have asked lawmakers to restore an $8 million summertime cut and provide another $18 million funding boost for the next budget year beginning July 1.


UI and ISU also are planning to resume a five-year plan for stepped tuition increases — in hopes of garnering more revenue from students, despite the loss in numbers.

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