Education

Distressed Iowa Wesleyan vows to stay open

Trustees form team focusing on school's sustainability

MOUNT PLEASANT — Iowa Wesleyan University will continue to educate.

Two weeks ago, citing dire financial headwinds that threatened its future, the small, private Southeastern Iowa university announced it needed within two weeks to find $2.1 million for a spring semester and $4.6 million to continue through December 2019.

Meeting Thursday in a closed session to determine the school’s fate, trustees agreed to continue operations until at least December 2019.

“We believe we have the funding necessary to go forward and we’re excited at that prospect,” board of trustees Chairwoman Annette Scieszinski said later at a news conference on campus. “All of our plans are built upon that.”

The board created a “New Directions Team,” which will be led by Scieszinski, to “think outside the box” in pursuing partnerships to create a sustainable future for the university, community and region, she said.

How the school faces its future is being watched by other higher education officials throughout Iowa. Several other small Iowa colleges and universities have been coping with enrollment declines and financial challenges of their own, The Gazette reported last weekend.

Undergraduate enrollment across Iowa privates is down more than 4,000 in the past decade — about 10 percent.

Figures provided by Iowa College Aid, which the Legislature created in 1963 to promote academic accessibility, show the private institutions that have seen the biggest undergrad enrollment declines since 2008 are Simpson College, William Penn University, Buena Vista University, Central College — and Iowa Wesleyan.

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While it recently has expanded its student body, figures show it is down 26 percent over a decade ago. It now has about 700 students.

Scieszinski said she thinks Iowa Wesleyan could be a leader in creating a possible template for other financially stressed institutions.

School President Steve Titus said the university is able to continue because of the campus community, the Southeastern Iowa community and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has helped the campus and at least four other small Iowa institutions with tens of millions worth of low-interest rural development loans.

Scieszinski said donations were jump-started by their own professor and alumnus Dolores Poulter Wilson, who pledged $500,000 during a prayer meeting last week. The Mount Pleasant Area Chamber Alliance also announced Wednesday a $120,000 gift to the university.

“We are moving forward in a very vigorous way, in a vigorous process to engage others in collaboration, in partnership, that would allow us to create that sustainable future, so this institution can continue for another 176 years,” Titus said.

That work will involve increasing enrollment in the undergraduate, graduate and online programs as well and expanding the university’s donor base, Titus said.

While Titus said he thinks some students may transfer from the school — and some have already left — he discouraged students from leaving out of fear.

“We want to be sure people are happy and where they need to be so people can flourish,” Titus said. “If that is not here, we have a responsibility to help them get where they need to be. What we don’t want people to do is make decisions based on fear.”

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Iowa Wesleyan historically has served first-generation college students, and that will not change, Titus said. He said that as the university grows, it wants to make sure the financial profile of students is better balanced — but that doesn’t mean turning away students who need financial aid.

In September, Iowa Wesleyan reported its fourth consecutive year of growth. Titus said very few institutions have had that enrollment performance. But even as enrollment has increased, revenue has been relatively flat.

Titus said he is looking forward to recruiting students for fall 2019. There are no plans for changes in staffing or faculty, he said.

Sophomore Meggie Calease said she didn’t have a plan for her future before she found Iowa Wesleyan. At the school, she said she found both a plan and a family.

“To have that taken away would devastate me,” Calease said.

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