Education

University of Northern Iowa president sees opportunity in 'uphill battle' to increase student admission

'We need to be talking to first-graders and second-graders and third-graders'

University of Northern Iowa President Mark Nook speaks Monday to the Cedar Rapids Downtown Rotary Club at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel. He said he hopes the public university can freeze tuition rates again next fall. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
University of Northern Iowa President Mark Nook speaks Monday to the Cedar Rapids Downtown Rotary Club at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel. He said he hopes the public university can freeze tuition rates again next fall. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — Even as the University of Northern Iowa reports its lowest student total since 1975 — and with experts sounding the alarm about dramatically worse enrollment forecasts — UNI President Mark Nook voiced hope Monday for his school and the state.

They say we’re going to see this big dip,” Nook told the Rotary Club of Cedar Rapids during its regular weekly meeting. “I say, wait a minute — you see a problem, I see an opportunity.”

He noted that Iowa’s population — and thus its upcoming pool of high school graduates — is not expected to plummet like some other states. What will change in Iowa, though, is the demographics of those high school grads — with a projected increase in minority students, who historically have attended college at a lower rate for several reasons including that many come from low-income families.

UNI is positioning itself to grab some of those upcoming graduates since it now is the state’s lower-cost public university option, thanks to this fall’s tuition freeze, which Nook said he’d like to extend to next fall.

“What we really need to do is get in those kids’ heads, in their parents’ heads, and help them realize they’ve got to go to college,” Nook said. “We need to be talking to first-graders and second-graders and third-graders, and especially minority students, and helping them understand the advantages a higher education presents.”

Getting them on track toward a postsecondary degree or training of some kind not only will benefit those students, Nook said, but help the sate attract employers.

“The jobs that are coming to the state require those degrees, require that level of thinking and knowledge,” he said. “If we can’t get them ready for those jobs, we’re going to have an economy where those jobs will move away.”

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The Board of Regents, which oversees Iowa’s public universities, earlier this month produced a report showing its institutions provided $11.8 billion in additional income to the state in the 2017-18 budget year, equal to 6.2 percent of the state’s gross product. Activity across Iowa’s public universities supports nearly 150,000 jobs — or one in every 14 in the state.

Nook took that larger view Monday in calling for a collective response to the student demographic projections.

“We’ve got to take the challenge and see the opportunity that’s in those numbers and make a difference for our state, and really for our entire region,” he said.

UNI, according to Nook, is taking steps to better brand itself and increase its outreach and collaborations — including with the Des Moines Area Community College Urban Campus, the first public majority-minority college campus in Iowa.

That UNI-DMACC deal, which launches next fall, offers Des Moines-based students a streamlined path to a four-year degree at UNI, with students completing their first two years at DMACC and their second two through UNI on the DMACC Urban Campus.

Nook said that partnership could help address declining enrollment, changing workforce demands and the educational needs for a growing sector of Iowa’s population.

“The thing that caught my eye about it is, here’s a group of students that really don’t have a way to get an education beyond their two-year degree, and yet many of them are going to need it,” he said. “So how do we serve those? That’s part of our mission. It’s why we exist. And we probably are in a better place to step into that than anybody else.”

But Nook cautioned against any quick enrollment bump.

“It’ll take us a little while to get back up, I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re down a little bit next year,” he said. “We’ve got a big class that’s graduating. But then after that, we should start to see slow growth.”

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UNI this fall counted a total 10,497 students, down 715 students from last fall, which was down 695 from the year before.

Ideally, Nook said, he’d like to get UNI back to between 13,000 and 13,500 students.

“But it’s going to be an uphill battle,” he said.

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

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