University of Iowa VP warns of 'profound' drop in student numbers over next decade

'We have to prepare now' for national decline, he says

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 — The long-term outlook for higher education is bleak, and Iowa will be right in the crosshairs — requiring its institutions to take prompt action and instigate immediate planning to survive, according to Brent Gage, associate vice president for enrollment management with the University of Iowa.

“We know it’s coming, and so we have to prepare now,” Gage told a crowd of Johnson County community leaders during a noon rotary meeting.

Citing a “higher education demand index” and analysis from Nathan Graw — an economist and professor at Carleton College south of the Twin Cities — Gage warned of an “enormous” drop in the number of high school graduates nationally come 2029.

That has to do with fewer 18-year-olds and decreases in the percent heading to college. And, Gage said, the Midwest will be especially hard-hit, with regional forecasts projecting a 19 percent drop in the number of students attending national four-year institutions — like UI and Iowa State University — from 2012 to 2029.

“If we do nothing at the University of Iowa, if we do exactly what we’re doing right now, what should we expect between 2012 and 2029?” Gage asked. “We should expect that we would be 15 percent smaller.”

The University of Iowa, like Iowa State, has in recent years endeavored to walk a fine enrollment line that keeps its courses full and its campus thriving without overtaxing an enterprise experiencing less state support and exacerbating financial woes. The public university efforts to strike a right budget balance at a time of less public support has involved tuition increases and shifting recruitment strategies — in addition to closing campus centers and programs, dropping some scholarships, delaying construction projects, and even freezing faculty pay for a stretch.

University of Northern Iowa, under greater duress, has been blunt about its pressing need to grow enrollment and better compete with its regional peers in neighboring states — freezing all tuition rates for this coming fall in hopes of halting and even reversing an enrollment slide expected to mean 600 fewer students this coming academic year.


Those regional schools — like UNI, Western Illinois or University of Alabama-Huntsville — will be hardest hit by the higher education changes, according to Gage, who said the impact on national universities will be “nowhere as proportionately significant as if you look at the real losers in this scenario.”

“And that’s the regional colleges and universities,” Gage said. “They can’t largely attract out-of-state students because they don’t have the national brand. And there’s a shrinking pool of in-state students, and the competition for those students is incredibly intense.”

He said the Harvards and the Michigans will be fine.

“But they’re going to have to go a little farther, a little wider, and a little deeper to get those classes,” Gage said. “Which means the next tier of institutions is going to have the top tier of their incoming class cut off, which means they will extend a little further, and so on down the line it will go until at the bottom of that tier … there are not going to be any students left.”

The reason for the projected losses extends back more than a decade now to the 2008 recession, when he said financial fears reshaped the American family.

“People stopped having children,” he said. “It shifted the way people thought about the security of their life and how they make decisions.”

To maintain a stable population, according to research Gage cited, a society needs a birthrate of just over two children per woman. Starting its slide in 2007, the U.S. birthrate has dropped 12 percent in six years, which Gage called “pretty profound.”

In Iowa, the birthrate is under the two-kids-per-woman threshold, Gage said.

“We are currently not replacing our population,” he said. “And 2026 is where, when we go to those high schools to recruit those students, there’s going to be fewer of them there.”

Additionally, Gage said, demographics are shifting in Iowa and elsewhere — with a projected decline in non-Hispanic white students. Between 2012 and 2030, the country will lose 265,000 of that subgroup — which he said matters because they pursue higher education at the highest clip.


“There is no projected growth in the amount of families who will be able to pay full tuition,” he said. “So we are going to continue with a shrinking population, but we’re also going to have a population that has demonstrated financial aid need.”

And before all this happens, Gage said, a false sense of stability will settle in. In fact, between 2023 and 2025, forecasts show a slight swell in the enrolling pool before tanking by 2029.

“This is what is going to lull colleges to sleep,” he said. “And if we go to sleep at the wheel and don’t plan for what’s coming … in 2029, 10 percent of the students we were recruiting three years ago are gone. They’re out of the system.”

Gage committed to the crowd that UI has a plan, a strategy and a set of goals aimed at ensuring it remains a destination research university with top-tier programs and strong enrollments. He declined to share details, however, so not to thwart the school’s efforts.

As for this coming fall — with UNI and Iowa State projecting enrollment drops — Gage said Iowa is “right where we want to be.”

“We’ll have those beds full of happy Hawkeyes,” he said of the university’s 10 residence halls.

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