Kirkwood's first female leader sees vital role for school

Demand for training without high cost is growing, Lori Sundberg says

Lori Sundberg began this week as the new president of Kirkwood Community College. She is pictured Thursday in her office
Lori Sundberg began this week as the new president of Kirkwood Community College. She is pictured Thursday in her office in Kirkwood Hall on the Kirkwood Community College campus in Cedar Rapids. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Inside a mostly bare office this week on the Kirkwood Community College campus, Lori Sundberg, the school’s new president — and its first female leader — met with another first female president for a chat and a greeting before she officially began work.

“I talked to her about many things,” Iowa State University President Wendy Wintersteen said about her chat with Sundberg, who began Wednesday as Kirkwood’s fifth president.

The pair talked about life and work, including areas of current collaboration — like a bachelor’s of science nursing program. They paved the way for continued cooperation, as both believe their institutions are integral in achieving a state goal of getting 70 percent of the workforce some form of post-high school education or training by 2025.

“Kirkwood would be the first access for most, if not all, of those students,” Sundberg said in an interview. “We can serve as the first two years before someone transfers on to a university. Or we can provide career technical education or corporate training, or even starting with the little kids.”

Sundberg, 60, comes to Iowa from her alma mater Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Ill., making her no novice to state-related funding concerns. With the Iowa Legislature lowering its share of covering the cost of higher education, Sundberg said she views community college as paramount in bridging the financial gap for many students who can’t afford the rising public university tuitions.

“I think that a lot of families and students are recognizing that community colleges can be a really good and viable way for them to play into the financial component of a higher education degree,” she said. “We can package that for them in a way that they can start here with their general education requirements and then continue anywhere else in Iowa and do so at a pretty good price.”

Kirkwood and its 14 community college peers in Iowa have not been immune from the state’s higher education cuts.

A “Condition of Iowa’s Community Colleges” report in January showed general state aid for the schools fell 3 percent and total enrollment for credit courses dropped 2.1 percent, contributing to a total revenue drop of 2.4 percent in the 2017 budget year.

In the 2018 budget year that just ended, the state cut its collective community college budget $500,000 — $75,000 of which fell to Kirkwood.

But, even with that reduction, community college funding was $1.2 million above its 2017 appropriation. And the state approved a $2 million increase for the 2019 budget year that started July 1, $312,711 of which will go to Kirkwood.

In 2010, community college funding was $148 million, growing to $202.6 million today. That contrasts support for Iowa’s public universities, pummeled with more than $40 million in midyear cuts in the last two budget years.

On a sort of listening tour of her new campus, Sundberg said, she has no preconceived notions about whether tuition should rise or stay flat. It stands this fall at $169 per credit hour for Iowa residents, $215 for non-residents and $338 for international students.

Regardless, she said, all of higher education increasingly must diversify its revenue portfolio.

“And, for the most part, I think that comes from private fundraising,” she said. “Because state and federal investment into higher education has been challenged.”

Although past pitches on the federal level for free community college have foundered, some states have taken measures into their own hands. Sundberg said she’d like to explore opportunities within Kirkwood’s seven-county region for a “promise program” aimed at making community college universal, free and accessible.

“I think that’s a viable way to consider making college more affordable,” she said. “But it would involve understanding where we would find funding for that. Would we have a donor that would be interested in doing that?”

With Kirkwood reaching increasingly into Iowa’s pool of primary students, offering college credit in high school in hopes of alleviating post-graduation debt, Sundberg said her school “always wants to grow the student population.”

Its fall enrollment in 2017 was 14,480. Projections aren’t out for this fall, officials said.

“But we want to meet the demand,” Sundberg said of the high school collaboration. “And that’s an area where we see demand.”

Sundberg — who’ll earn a $300,000 salary, down from her predecessor Mick Starcevich’s parting salary of $311,750 — said although Kirkwood and her former collegiate home have many differences, they also have similarities, including their sprawling regions.

Several of her former co-workers said her leadership at Sandburg suits her well for Kirkwood’s mission and its specific challenges.

“Dr. Sundberg’s legacy here at Sandburg will more than likely be her ability to manage the college during these very difficult fiscal times,” Sandburg associate professor Dave Kellogg said in an email. “Her transparency and knowledge of the complex fiscal challenges kept the college alive and relevant.”

Stephanie Hilten, director of advancement for Sandburg, called Sundberg “more of a coach than a boss.”

“She led with questions instead of answers, gives credit where credit is due, and helps develop strong team members.”

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