With recruiting emphasis on out-of-state and international students, UI in danger of forgetting core mission


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“Be remarkable” may not be the most apt campaign slogan for the University of Iowa anymore. “Be our financial asset” seems more in line with the university’s new recruitment strategy.

At least that’s how it appears, as the UI increasingly emphasizes attracting out-of-state and international students. The underlying reason for the new focus is the drop-off in state funding, dipping to a new low this year. For the first time, tuition dollars funded a majority of the UI’s general-education budget this year.

“Nonresidents are deliberately pursued for revenue reasons to try to preserve as much of the UI as possible,” Tom Mortenson, a senior scholar at the nonpartisan Pell Institute, told the Editorial Board in an e-mail.

Because of these budget realities, it may seem only natural to recruit out-of-staters and international students — and their higher tuition rates. But the new strategy has its shortcomings.

Diversity — economic, geographic, ethnic, etc. — is undoubtedly essential to creating a superior university. But with the recruiting shift, the UI is in danger of forgetting its core mission: to deliver quality, relatively low-cost education to scores of in-state students. Approximately 52 percent of the UI freshmen enrolled last fall were from out of state, an astonishingly high figure for a school that supposedly prides itself on educating in-state students.

Earlier this month, the UI Task Force on Undergraduate Education and Success recommended several ways to buoy the university’s emaciated budget. One of the task force’s goals is producing at least 50 percent of growth through nonresident and international students.

UI officials need to realize a sharp influx of revenue from out-of-state students is simply a plug in the dike. These students pay three times more than in-state students, but the results of this long-term strategy to maximize tuition revenue may have unfortunate ramifications.

One such consequence is the serious “brain drain” among graduates from Iowa universities. Iowa college graduates are leaving for states with better jobs and better pay. Simply put, the intellectual outflow is greater than inflow. According to Payscale.com, Iowa is tied for fourth worst in the country for college retention.

As boomers retire in droves and Iowa retains a diminutive number of its college graduates, the state will face a real crisis in keeping up with the rest of the country, both economically and intellectually.

While the recruitment change may bolster the UI’s bottom line, it doesn’t help ameliorate the state “brain drain” problem. Out-of-state students and international students, after all, have less incentive to stay in Iowa. The UI should seriously consider reversing its long-term strategy of recruiting out-of-state students.

The gradual defunding of public universities certainly doesn’t help remedy the exodus problem. Iowa must create new jobs in growing industries that employ graduates at competitive wages to boost retention rates among young adults, Mortenson said. But, he said, Iowa has turned away from supporting its state universities and, subsequently, its state universities have turned away from serving Iowa. The raison d’être for state universities is to make higher education accessible and affordable to in-state students. Yet by increasingly reaching outward in its recruitment, the UI is pivoting away from that core mission.

We can’t necessarily fault UI officials for chasing the almighty dollar to stave off faculty cuts, keep programs and majors alive, and aggressively advertise the school in a competitive higher education market. We even laud them for producing a campus with dynamic professors, cutting-edge research, and content students. Rather, the onus is largely on state legislators, who, in their continued defunding of public higher education, have constrained the UI and other state universities. In the last 30 years, the state has gone from funding 76 percent of the UI’s budget to just 41 percent this school year. And the economic recession has only compounded the funding problem.

“All states are in fiscal trouble, but Iowa has chosen to cut its higher-education investment effort by more than all but two states in this decade,” Mortenson said, citing the February issue of the monthly research letter he edits, “Postsecondary Education OPPORTUNITY.”

The move to recruit more out-of-state and international students is just another troubling symptom of the underlying malady the Editorial Board has discussed throughout the week: a precipitous decline in state funding. As Mortenson pointed out, the deleterious trend is long-standing, yet has provoked little scrutiny or discussion.

We hope our series will help change that.

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