MILFORD — A declining population long has been forecast to threaten higher education institutions that rely on tuition income, but a national expert told Iowa’s regents Tuesday that the drop will be more dire than expected and could turn higher ed as we know it on its head.
“It looks bleaker than we ever imagined,” said Sally Johnstone, president of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, a private nonprofit formed around a mission to improve higher education strategic decision-making.
“It’s not looking better — in fact it’s looking worse,” Johnstone told the Iowa Board of Regents, which convened in Northwest Iowa at the Lakeside Laboratory Regents Resource Center to talk over not just enrollment trends but other policy and planning decisions amid the shifting higher ed landscape. “These are realities. This is where we are.”
The “knee-jerk” reaction to the looming dearth in traditional college-bound high school graduates around the nation has been to compete harder for the shrinking pool of prospective students. But Johnstone challenged Iowa’s regents to reject that urge and think collaboratively.
“We’re in a moment in time when our population is declining,” she said. “If we deal with it and plan for it, we can still have wonderful higher education resources at affordable rates that allow the economies of the particular states and communities to thrive. But they won’t look like they did 20 years ago.”
Iowa’s nine volunteer regents came to their retreat Tuesday with seemingly open minds to non-traditional tactics, like statewide collaboration involving Iowa’s public universities, private colleges and community colleges — with intricate legislative involvement.
Shrinking resources will demand as much, said regents Executive Director Mark Braun.
“We’re all going to run out of money,” he said. “K-12, community colleges, private colleges, the regents — there’s just not going to be enough.”
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In considering collaboration and cooperation, regents — with Johnstone’s guidance — discussed opportunities for efficiencies and the potential for curtailing duplication, both in academic programming and back-office administration. Braun said regents soon will see a report of its university programs, highlighting those that are the same between institutions, vary slightly or are unique.
Although the board historically has operated with a growth mind-set — for example, recently freezing the University of Northern Iowa’s tuition in hopes of upping its competitive advantage in recruiting — Johnstone said any successes from that will be short-lived.
Competing for the limited pool of Iowans won’t help the state as a whole, she said. And vying for more out-of-state students isn’t sustainable.
“Trying to grab students from other states is a short-term strategy,” she said. “Maybe you can change the parameters to be more attractive, but you can count on those states to change their parameters, too.”
Braun suggested a statewide conversation, noting that years ago lawmakers rejected a proposed performance-based-funding model that — even without legislative sign-on — prompted a surge in competition that hurt some Iowa institutions, with effects lingering today.
Johnstone turned the inclination toward competition on its head by asking how closely the universities now work with community colleges and private universities on a statewide mission to strengthen the economy and sustain the health of its rural contingent.
“I’m just planting the seed here,” she said.
But she also stressed time is short.
“This state needs to very soon start talking about comprehensive planning,” Johnstone said. “Based on the shift in demographics and what’s going on, you can do nothing and costs will go up and students will decline.”
Part of the conversation needs to involve closing the educational attainment gap for underrepresented minorities — one demographic projected to see gains in the coming years.
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The state’s higher education enterprise hasn’t served that sector as well in years past, Johnstone said, and changing that could help close another gap — the one between the percentage of jobs requiring a college education and the percentage of adults who have one.
That gap by next year is projected to reach 24 percent in Iowa, Johnstone said, with 68 percent of the state’s jobs in 2020 expected to require some form of postsecondary education.
In comparing its enrollment challenges with those facing other states, Iowa sits somewhere in the middle — with Texas and the Dakotas facing enrollment growth and Illinois, Michigan and California facing even bigger declines.
“We have a lot of states that are losing students,” Johnstone said. “A lot of states are trying different things. But you asked me here to get you thinking about what’s your approach.”
And she urged creativity — with regents pitching some sort of statewide coalition thinking collaboratively about a best path forward.
“You guys have a huge responsibility,” she said. “There is no simple answer, I can guarantee that. But if you don’t open up the challenge, the solutions are not going to come.”
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