Education

University of Northern Iowa stresses 'urgency' of reversing enrollment drop in presidents' welcome-back address

President Mark Nook makes case for tuition freeze at the campus

University of Northern Iowa President Mark Nook speaks May 12, 2017, during the Panther Caravan stop at the Cedar Rapids Marriott. Nook made the case Monday for a tuition freeze at the Cedar Falls institution. (The Gazette)
University of Northern Iowa President Mark Nook speaks May 12, 2017, during the Panther Caravan stop at the Cedar Rapids Marriott. Nook made the case Monday for a tuition freeze at the Cedar Falls institution. (The Gazette)

On the first day of the fall semester Monday, fewer students than last year showed up at the University of Northern Iowa, and President Mark Nook acknowledged that in a welcome-back address, framing the enrollment dip as an opportunity to reinvent the UNI brand, repeat this year’s tuition freeze and redouble recruitment of Iowa’s minority populations and out-of-state prospects.

The doom and gloom is there,” Nook said in the address. “And it will happen unless we think about how to serve that group of students in particular that traditionally hasn’t gone on to college.

“We are in a position to work on that and effect that change,” Nook said. “Can we do it fast enough? We’ll see. There is urgency.”

Over the summer, Nook revealed his campus expects an enrollment drop this fall of about 600 students — which would mean a total enrollment of about 10,600, marking UNI’s lowest in 43 years.

Iowa State University also projected fewer students on its campus, while the University of Iowa isn’t disclosing expectations before the official tally in September — although it has predicted a larger freshman class in Board of Regents documents, even as administrators acknowledge demographic shifts will pose enrollment challenges in coming years.

Nook said UNI needs to distinguish itself to attract more students.

For starters, he said, it’s pushing for the state support needed to continue holding its tuition rates steady — even as the UI and ISU rates increase. Until this year, the cost to attend UNI was nearly level with costs at the UI and ISU, making it harder to compete for students against its regional peers.

“Even with us holding our tuition flat, and Iowa and ISU going up, we’re now $515 below their average,” Nook said. “We have a little ways to go. About $2,000 left to go.”

UNI needs an enrollment of about 13,500 to ensure a strong future, according to Nook.

“So we’re going to be asking for additional money from the state so we can hold our tuition as close to flat as possible, and again get some separation and become more competitive in our tuition and fees relative to our major competition,” he said.

Lawmakers, according to Nook, have acknowledged UNI’s role in addressing the state’s job vacancies — in that half the students it enrolls from outside Iowa take their first jobs after graduation inside the state.

Next year, he noted, UNI will begin offering out-of-state grants.

“That should be able to help recruit students from, especially, neighboring states,” he said.

Nook said the campus is taking a fresh look at its brand and messaging.

“One of the problems that we have right now is that we’ve lost the unity in our university, in terms of marking and brand,” he said. “We have multiple messages, with multiple fonts, and multiple logos. It’s not clear that this is a university.”

As Iowa’s three public campuses welcomed a combined about 77,000 students back to campus for its fall semester, ISU President Wendy Wintersteen also issued a statement — looking forward to a year of ongoing “innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Quoting Nobel-winning author Toni Morrison, Wintersteen said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

“This is a fitting way to think about the Iowa State experience and our culture of innovation and entrepreneurship,” she said, noting this year will see the opening of its Student Innovation Center.

UI officials didn’t respond Monday to The Gazette’s request for any welcome-back communication from UI President Bruce Harreld. On Tuesday, the university provided Harreld’s message welcoming students, faculty, and staff “from around the world and just down the street.” The message was, word-for-word, the same message Harreld sent to the UI community at the start of last fall semester.

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“Initially, many may find our community confining or overwhelming, our diversity lacking or eye-opening,” according to the message. “In either case, our hope is that once you see all that Iowa has to offer, you’ll find your home here.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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