A new academic year starts this week at Iowa’s three public universities. Incoming first-year students will be greeted with syllabuses, football fandom and maybe a bit of economic anxiety.
Students in the class of 2023 are starting their college careers at a moment of great uncertainty for higher education and the workforce in Iowa.
College enrollment is stagnant or declining, and state funding has not kept pace with needs. Most students who graduate will be debt-burdened and will struggle to find a living wage in the field they studied.
Students’ worries about their careers after college are further aggravated by early signs that a recession could strike the national economy before they graduate.
We would like to tell students that everything will be okay, and they have nothing to worry about. Unfortunately, that isn’t true.
The challenges facing colleges, students and workers are complicated. Some promising potential solutions have been proposed, but there is no clear consensus about how best to align our educational resources for an American economy that remains strong by most measures, but feels fragile to many people.
Nevertheless, there are a few things we know will help, and should have popular support among policymakers and their constituents.
Adequately fund state institutions
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Undergraduate tuition for in-state students will increase about 4 percent this academic year at the state’s two largest colleges, University of Iowa and Iowa State University. Each institution requested a $7 million budget increase from the Iowa Legislature this year, but received a relatively meager $4 million boosts instead.
Tuition increases have a direct relationship with student debt loads. In 2017, students graduating from four-year universities in Iowa held an average of more than $30,000 in student loan debt, according to the Iowa College Aid Commission. That’s about the same as the state’s median per capita income.
Higher education leaders have repeatedly warned that underinvestment from the state government will inevitably lead to tuition hikes and diminishing educational offerings. Accordingly, Iowa public universities’ standing on the influential U.S. News & World Report rankings have slipped in recent years.
This issue offers the simplest solution to the higher education crisis - state legislators should revive the Iowa tradition of adequate annual budget growth, which pays dividends in the form of economic stimulus.
Plan now for smaller student bodies
The fact that college enrollment is declining at higher education institutions across the country could compound funding woes.
Nationally, overall enrollment has slipped for eight years in a row, according to a report this year from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Analysts often attribute the decline to slow population growth, and the easy availability of jobs for high school graduates.
Iowa’s public universities reflect that trend, with steady or falling student populations. A UI administrator recently said the school could see a “profound” drop in enrollment over the next decade.
Not every young American needs a four-year university degree. Many high school graduates are well-served by alternative educational opportunities, such as community college, apprenticeships and practical trades training.
Policymakers should recognize this reality, and start planning now to thoughtfully downsize.
Prepare students for high-demand fields
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A large portion of America’s college graduates are underemployed, meaning they either make too little money, or have jobs that do not utilize their college education.
About 12 percent of young degree-holders work in low-wage jobs, defined by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York as paying around $25,000 or less per year.
Even when college graduates have higher standards, their jobs often don’t require degrees. Among Americans age 22 to 65 with a bachelor’s degree or higher, around 43 have what the Fed calls “good non-college jobs” - adequate pay, but no degree requirements.
At the same time, Iowa suffers from a shortage of qualified workers in several sectors, including technical trades and health care.
In order to ensure our state’s economic security, it’s imperative that educators and government officials work to equip students with applicable skills. The state has several important projects aimed at connecting students with known workforce needs, but those programs require healthy support from state and local governments.
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