Iowa’s college enrollment dropped in 2020. Trends point to a continuing decline.

The campanile is a symbol of Iowa State University and is located on central campus. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Faced with a spectrum of uncertainties, student enrollment declined across the board at Iowa’s colleges and universities in 2020, according to Iowa College Aid, a state agency that promotes higher education. 

From on-campus living arrangements to questionable financial security, COVID-19 shook the traditional college experience potential students came to expect this last year. 

That variability may have deterred some students from enrolling in college, especially if they were wary of online classes or on the flip side, wanted primarily virtual lessons, said Elizabeth Sedrel, spokesperson for Iowa College Aid.

“The pandemic has touched every aspect of our lives,” Sedrel said. “I think the real surprise would be if there hadn’t been a drop in enrollment this year.”

Financial aid filings, often used as a forecasting tool for enrollment, don’t shed a more optimistic light for the 2021 school year.

For the week of Dec. 13, Iowa’s FAFSA rate was 6.5% below the rate in 2019, Sedrel said.

“That seems to indicate we’re looking at another drop in enrollment,” Sedrel said.

What does that mean for Iowa’s skilled workforce?

Dave Swenson, an economist at Iowa State University, said the number adults in Iowa who have attained a degree is higher than in neighboring states.

Numbers from Iowa College Aid corroborate that. Currently, 43% of Iowans have an associate’s degree or higher, up from 41% four years ago. That’s 2% higher than the national average.

Though enrollment may have dropped this last year, Iowa’s biggest workforce challenge is the decades-long trend of “brain drain,” where high-skilled adults are leaving the state in search of jobs, Swenson said.

Historically, Iowa’s agricultural industry has drawn in higher rates of low-skilled workers who come to work in food processing, while the state’s young, skilled workforce leave in search of jobs. The state’s economy has long prioritized the ag industry, Swenson said.

“We educate the hell out of our young people,” Swenson said. “We just don’t have the industrial structure to keep them.”

By mid-decade, however, Swenson said employers will seek out more high-skilled workers in areas like insurance, health care, banking and finance. He also anticipates more demand for workers on the research and development side of the agricultural industry.

These will grow in metro areas, especially places like West Des Moines that have a high number of medical parks, or Ankeny, where engineering and technology jobs are increasing.

Sedrel said when the pandemic dies down and the economy starts recovering, students with a college degree will be in a better position to find a job.

“Don’t give up on your college plans at this point,” Sedrel said. “Go ahead and file for financial aid. It doesn’t cost anything to do.”

Iowa’s fall 2020 undergraduate and graduate enrollment in comparison to 2019, by Iowa College Aid:

Total undergraduate/graduate enrollment: down 4.7%
Regent universities: down 4.4%
Private not-for-profit colleges and universities: down 3.3%
Community colleges: down 5.8%
Private for-profit institutions: down 8.5%