Regents investigate enrollment drops, project future increases

By: - November 11, 2022 3:40 pm

Des Moines East High School graduates attend commencement in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Des Moines Public Schools)

Iowa’s public universities are projected to see enrollment growth after a six-year decline, members of the Iowa Board of Regents heard this week.

Jason Pontius, associate chief academic officer for the board, reported projected enrollment rates for the next decade Thursday at the regents’ meeting in Council Bluffs.

He said estimating enrollment numbers isn’t easy but presented the “rough idea” of what the next few years look like. 

“We are expected to see some growth in the next few years, starting around 2025 is when the enrollment cliff you’ve heard so much about kind of hits,” Pontius said. “It is not a big factor in Iowa.”

While Iowa and Minnesota are not expected to see a decrease in enrollment of high school graduates, Pontius said Wisconsin and Illinois are projected to see lower high school graduation rates. 

The data showed there will be a decline in college enrollment again in Iowa around 2033.

Understanding why enrollment is dropping

Enrollment at Iowa’s public universities has dropped in the past five years, something the board office is investigating. 

Pontius said the “mystery” is in understanding why the rate of high school students going to college has been dropping since before the COVID-19 pandemic began. 

The percentage of high school students intending to enroll in college and the percentage who actually enrolled have been on the decline since 2013, said Claire Waletzki a practicum student in the board office and a graduate student at Iowa State University. The trend is not unique to Iowa, nor to public institutions.

Waletzki said the report showed more high school students in Iowa are graduating and college preparedness does also not seem to be a factor in decreased enrollment numbers. 

Pontius said the financial standing of high school students also does not seem to play a factor in the declining numbers.

He said there had been a “pretty persistent” 30-point gap between students who qualify for free and reduced lunch and those who don’t. “That has shifted a little bit but even in our statistical models, the difference is not significant and has not changed over time. What has changed is that more of our high school students in the state of Iowa qualify for free and reduced price lunch, so more are coming from that category of lower college-going rates.” 

There is also a persistent gap between enrollment of racial and ethnic minority students and white students, but it has not worsened in recent history, Pontius said. 

Female students are also more likely than male students to enroll in Iowa’s institutions as well. Pontius said the lowest college-going rate population is white men who qualify for free and reduced price lunch. 

There is a growing number of students going into apprenticeships in Iowa, he said, but it only makes up about 1% of the graduate population. Military enrollment of Iowa high school graduates has also decreased over time. 

Wage increases seem to be a piece of the explanation for why these trends are declining. 

Based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the workforce has gained 1.2 million high school graduates since 2013, but there has been a drop of 3 million college students across the country. The increase in employment directly out of college is not the entire answer to why enrollment is declining, Pontius said. 

Pew Research data presented in the report showed more men compared to women do not attend college because they “just didn’t want to” or “didn’t need more education for the job/career” they wanted. 

Pontius said he does believe the 1% decline in Iowa high school students filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid is a factor and if more students completed the application, they could better understand the cost of college. 

“You can tell they (students) were openly skeptical of that because they only see the sticker price,” he said. “The FAFSA would allow people to see beyond that, but it would take legislation to kind of make that a statewide mandate.”

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Eleanor Hildebrandt
Eleanor Hildebrandt

Eleanor Hildebrandt is a senior at the University of Iowa majoring in journalism and mass communication and global health studies, with a minor in German. She is a managing editor at the university newspaper, the Daily Iowan, and has served as an reporter intern at Iowa Capital Dispatch.