Education

Iowa Wesleyan struggles with daunting future

Despite student success, school faces funding crisis

MPN photo by Karyn Spory 

Iowa Wesleyan University is decorated in December 2017 for the holidays, including this traditional sled near the chapel.
MPN photo by Karyn Spory Iowa Wesleyan University is decorated in December 2017 for the holidays, including this traditional sled near the chapel.
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Iowa Wesleyan University, the private liberal arts school in Mount Pleasant with a storied history that began before Iowa became a state, is considering closing amid “significant financial challenges” confronting higher education.

“The university does not have a healthy endowment or extensive donor network,” Iowa Wesleyan President Steven E. Titus wrote in a message late last week on the school’s website.

“We have attempted to secure funding to establish a solid financial base. Unfortunately, several anticipated gifts simply have not materialized,” he wrote — despite accomplishments including a doubled enrollment, gains in student retention and having a committed faculty and staff.

“At this moment, the university does not have the required financial underpinnings to bridge the gap between strong enrollment and new programming, and the money needed to keep the institution open,” Titus wrote.

The fatalistic message came after a “tremendously difficult” Wesleyan board of trustees special session Thursday on the university’s financial projections.

School officials haven’t entirely given up hope, according to Titus. But the clock is ticking, as the board voted to reconvene Nov. 15 to consider the school’s future.

“Therefore, we are actively and aggressively pursuing additional funding sources, and new and innovative partnerships, collaborations and supporters,” Titus wrote. “The next 14 days are extremely important as we meet with the (U.S. Department of Agriculture), regional business and community leaders, and partners in higher education to explore alternatives.”

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Only two years ago, the university partnered with the USDA in the federal agency’s community facilities program, which supports rural development and institutions committed to it.

According to tax documents the university is required to make available to the public, Iowa Wesleyan has been operating at a net annual revenue loss of between about $2.6 and $4.6 million for at least three fiscal years. However, it last reported an endowment worth over $15 million, land and equipment valued at nearly $22 million and other assets.

Iowa Wesleyan University was founded in 1842 — four years before Iowa joined the union in 1846 — when the territorial legislature granted a charter for the Mount Pleasant Literary Institute. It later was named the Mount Pleasant Collegiate Institute before taking on the Wesleyan identity.

Its total undergraduate enrollment, according to the latest rankings in U.S. News & World Report, is 573. Its campus sits on 60 acres and charges tuition and fees of $30,500. In a fall news release, Wesleyan reported growth for a fourth straight year, up 6 percent from the 2017-18 academic year, thanks to what it called “a comprehensive enrollment strategy and the highest retention rates in more than a decade.”

But this isn’t the first time Wesleyan has faced a financial crossroads.

In 2014, Inside Higher Education reported the school was cutting 22 of its 52 faculty positions — prompting some employees to wonder how it could remain open. It also cut 23 staff members and 16 of its 31 academic programs at that time.

Titus, according to the publication, said the cuts trimmed $3 million from a $20 million operating budget and aimed to prepare the college to grow.

“We think there are opportunities to really move from a small local residential liberal arts college to a more regional institution,” Titus said, according to Inside Higher Ed.

Titus couldn’t immediately be reached by The Gazette.

In his message last week, he reported looming monumental decisions “may have a profound impact on students, faculty, staff members as well as the entire southeastern Iowa community.”

He reported Iowa Wesleyan’s annual economic impact on Southeastern Iowa tops $55 million.

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“We feel a strong responsibility and commitment to continue the mission of Iowa Wesleyan University,” according to his statement.

Wesleyan isn’t alone among higher education institutions in Iowa struggling financially.

The Iowa Legislature in recent years has cut funding to its public universities — prompting the much larger University of Iowa, Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa to cut cost and look elsewhere for revenue — including tuition increases.

But several years ago, — in response to a Board of Regents proposal to distribute state funding based on a handful of performance metrics including in-state enrollment — the public universities ramped up recruitment of local college-bound students — impacting the pool of prospects that could have been aiming for smaller schools instead.

Amid complaints from smaller schools, the Iowa Legislature didn’t approved that matrix.

In his message, Titus noted his school’s rich history and “strong commitment to our students and the southeast Iowa region” that helped it survive struggles.

It self-identifies as a pioneer in the sciences and at the forefront of educational opportunities for women. Its graduates include James Van Allen, the NASA and UI researcher who discovered Earth’s radiation belts; and Peggy Whitson, a NASA astronaut who twice served as station commander for the International Space Station.

Whitson returned to Wesleyan earlier this year to speak for its annual “Founders Day” celebration.

“She is a vital part of not only American history but of Iowa Wesleyan University history and an example for future generations of students who dare to live out their dreams,” Titus said then.

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