Enrollment down at Iowa’s public universities, but freshman classes grow

By: - September 14, 2021 9:00 am

Lake LaVerne is on the campus of Iowa State University. (Photo by Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Enrollment fell at Iowa’s three public colleges this fall, continuing a years-long decline complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The University of Iowa, Iowa State University and the University of Northern all reported smaller 2021 enrollment as classes began last month. The University of Iowa reported 31,206 students enrolled this fall, down 394 from last year. Iowa State had a total enrollment of 30,708, down 1,117 from their fall 2020 enrollment, according to a Board of Regents report from last November. The University of Northern Iowa, the smallest of Iowa’s state schools, had 9,231 students enrolled this fall, down 291 students from fall 2020.

Postsecondary enrollment across the U.S. was down in 2021, according to a June report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The study found that enrollment declined by 3.5% in spring 2021, with undergraduate students accounting for all of the decline. There were 727,000 fewer undergrads in spring 2021 than in spring 2020.

The National Student Clearinghouse report found that Iowa’s overall enrollment (including private schools and community colleges) dropped by 5.3% between 2020 and 2021. 

Iowa’s two-year community colleges took a harder hit in 2021 than public or private four-year programs. Public two-year programs saw an 8.4% decline in the state between spring 2020 and 2021. Public and private four-year programs saw 4% and 2.7% declines, respectively.

Freshman classes show growth

Despite smaller overall enrollments in fall 2021, Iowa State and UNI boasted improvements in the number of new student enrollments, including growing freshman classes. Iowa State enrolled 316 more freshmen this year than in 2020, and UNI grew their freshman enrollment by 5% compared to 2020. 

The University of Iowa increased its incoming freshman class by just 11 students in 2021.

“We are grateful that they chose the University of Iowa, and we will support them as they pursue their academic and co-curricular passions,” said Sarah Hansen, University of Iowa vice president for student life. “We will continue to navigate the challenges of COVID-19 as Hawkeyes always do — together.”

Regents enrollment was shrinking before COVID-19 pandemic

Although COVID-19 shook up higher education across the U.S., Iowa’s universities have been seeing declining enrollments for several years. The Board of Regents reported in November 2020 that enrollments had been declining since 2016, when the state hit a record high of 80,269 students. 

The Regents have not met about 2021 enrollment numbers. They will meet two days this week to consider other business and to request state funding for fiscal year 2023.

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Katie Akin
Katie Akin

Katie Akin is a former Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter. Katie began her career as an intern at PolitiFact, debunking viral fake news and fact-checking state and national politicians. She moved to Iowa in 2019 for a politics internship at the Des Moines Register, where she assisted with Iowa Caucus coverage, multimedia projects and the Register’s Iowa Poll. She became the Register’s retail reporter in early 2020, chronicling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Central Iowa’s restaurants and retailers.