Staff Columnist

Can Iowa sustain more than 20 private colleges?

Public school attendance is rising - not so at many private colleges

The chapel is seen at Iowa Wesleyan University in Mount Pleasant on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018. Following financial troubles this fall, the university's board of trustees has announced that the school will remain open indefinitely.  (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
The chapel is seen at Iowa Wesleyan University in Mount Pleasant on Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018. Following financial troubles this fall, the university's board of trustees has announced that the school will remain open indefinitely. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Recent news that Iowa Wesleyan University may have to close its doors presses an important question — do Iowa’s college offerings align with our needs?

The school’s bleak situation is unfortunate, but not surprising. National demographic and economic trends are tilting against small colleges, and other Iowa institutions are being squeezed as well.

Iowa Wesleyan’s board of trustees announced a plan this month to keep operating until at least December 2019 thanks to low-interest federal loans, but the long-term stability is uncertain the face of weak enrollment numbers. Other small colleges — including William Penn University and Central College, both within 100 miles of Wesleyan’s Mount Pleasant campus — have also seen substantial enrollment declines.

Iowa has at least 24 independent colleges and universities, most of which offer liberal arts programs to undergraduate students. Meanwhile, statewide K-12 enrollment is barely growing and the number of Iowans under age 18 is falling.

When any small institution closes, it’s understandably devastating for its stakeholders and the surrounding community. Still, there may be innovative solutions available. Some small colleges in other states have started talks to merge with other institutions, and public schools have strong records of partnering with other institutions.

The reality is colleges are competing for a limited pool of students, and the state’s large public institutions are winning. Total enrollment at Regent universities is increasing, while enrollment is slowing declining both at community colleges and private institutions. Regent institutions also are retaining students are higher rates.

When students do pick private schools, they often face additional challenges in completing their degrees and finding gainful employment. As one comparison, students at Iowa Wesleyan can expect annual costs about $10,000 higher than at the University of Iowa, but their average salaries after graduation are more than $10,000 lower than UI graduates’, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

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So, by some measures, small private colleges are overpriced and underperforming. Can our small, slow-growth state support them all? In their current form, that seems doubtful.

But there is widespread agreement that Iowa needs a robust set of postsecondary education options to prepare the workforce for emerging industries. State policymakers set a goal to have 70 percent of the workforce equipped with some education or training beyond high school by 2025. Currently the rate is 61 percent, and insiders worry we are not on pace to meet the 2025 goal.

Oddly enough, part of the trouble is the state’s strong job market. With job offerings aplenty in many communities, more high school graduates choose to enter the workforce instead of seek formal training. In the short-term, that’s a good thing. However, without postsecondary education, they may be entering positions with little opportunity to advance or grow their wages.

Iowans need postsecondary education, but that increasingly will not take place on small liberal arts campuses. That future is upon us, whether we’re prepared for it or not.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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