Overton: Competition will hurt Iowa universities

BY JON OVERTON | JULY 30, 2014 5:00 AM

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The University of Iowa said it was going to make a big push to recruit more students, and it wasn’t kidding. Ads for the UI have popped up all over, from Spotify to TV to the Johnson County Fair.

They are everywhere.

If the UI doesn’t get a lot more in-state students over the next few years, it could lose tens of millions of dollars.

Why would such a thing happen? Well, the state Board of Regents thought it would be a good idea to base a whopping 60 percent of public university funding on in-state enrollment, and compared with the University of Northern Iowa and Iowa State University, the UI has far fewer in-state students as a percentage of the student body.

But given recent demographic changes, this new funding model might cause a few problems.

A report by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education shows that the total number of high-school graduates in Iowa is expected to drop by 5 percent (from the 2008 to 2009 school year) by the 2027-28 school year.

This fits into a general trend that the Midwest, including Iowa, has been experiencing for decades. Birthrates are falling, the overall population is stagnant, and people are leaving for the Southern and Western United States.

Enrollment at four-year postsecondary schools is projected to rise, but the National Center for Education Statistics predicts that growth will diminish. And when you look at what’s happening in the rest of the country, the picture becomes worrisome.

Throughout the Midwest and Northeast, the number of high-school grads is falling. Illinois is projected to lose 19 percent by 2027-28, Ohio 17 percent, and Michigan 16 percent. The Northeast is even worse, with declines in some states at nearly 30 percent.

The shrinking supply of high-school grads and increased demand for in-state students at public universities bodes well for prospective Iowa college students in the short-term. Increased competition for us means we’re more likely to get accepted and receive generous financial-aid packages.

But where do universities go when supplies of local students run dry? They do what the Minnesota liberal-arts school Gustavus Adolphus College did: snag out-of-state and international students.

So now our three state universities must compete with private liberal-arts colleges, which are already feeling the brunt of a drop-off in high-school grads, in addition to more aggressive campaigning from colleges and universities outside the state.

Again, in terms of acceptance and financial aid, students are probably going to benefit, but the institutions they attend will suffer if they don’t have enroll enough students, and in the case of Iowa’s public universities, many of these students must be in-state.

A lack of money for an institution can mean higher tuition, laying off nontenured faculty, cutting undergraduate and graduate programs, and a general weakening of a university, making the education students receive a bit less valuable and the institution less attractive.

The regents’ new funding model effectively makes it much harder for Iowa’s public universities to enroll out-of-state students to make up for a shrinking population of in-state high-school graduates.

Because the rest of the Midwest and Northeast also have a declining population of high-school grads, colleges from those regions will target out-of-state students, which for them will include, you guessed it, Iowans.

The supply of high-school grads in Iowa and across the Midwest and Northeast is shrinking. Demand specifically for Iowa students just shot through the roof with the regents’ newly crafted funding model. Because students are the big, hot commodity here, they’ll probably get some good deals on tuition, but if Iowa schools take a big funding hit as a result, the quality of education will probably suffer.

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