IOWA CITY — Although more Iowans have college degrees today than five years ago, higher education enrollment is falling in Iowa — moving the state in the opposite direction of the governor’s goal of getting 70 percent of the workforce some education or training beyond high school by 2025.
Overall college enrollment across Iowa fell 7.5 percent between 2010 and 2018 — from about 210,000 a decade ago to about 195,000 in 2018, according to a 2020 Condition of Higher Education report Iowa College Aid made public Friday.
The coronavirus pandemic could exacerbate that slide, striking at the heart of the question many have been asking: What lasting impact will COVID-19 have on higher education — which has been upended with shuttered campuses, online-only curriculum and canceled commencement ceremonies?
Iowa College Aid officials say the answer is not yet clear. But one measure of students planning to pursue college this fall — the Free Application for Federal Student Aid filing — gives a glimpse.
“Nationally, the rate of FAFSA filing compared to last year has slipped,” according to Elizabeth Keest Sedrel, spokeswoman for Iowa College Aid, which has served as the state’s student financial aid agency since the General Assembly created it in 1963.
At the start of the year, the country was seeing more FAFSA filing than a year before, according to Sedrel.
“But once COVID-19 became a serious issue here in the United States, we started to see that number slip,” she said. “And now we’re behind FAFSA filing from a year ago.”
National FAFSA filing is down 2.6 percent — more severely in Alaska, Maine and Mississippi, with decreases over 8 percent. Iowa, which was up at the start of the year, now is down a quarter of a percentage point from the same period last year.
“We’re taking that as a win, that we’re holding steady against last year when nationally there’s been a measurable flip,” Sedrel said.
Presidents of Iowa’s state universities this week raised the likelihood of smaller freshman classes come fall — not to mention big dips in international enrollment, with the coronavirus pandemic fouling up travel and options.
If those projections hold, they could propel Iowa’s downward slide in higher education enrollment, which the new Iowa College Aid report exposed — including a drop in the rate at which on-time high school graduates are immediately enrolling in college.
That fell from 70 percent in the 2011-12 academic year to 65 in 2017-18, according to the report. While every student category saw declines, black students and those who qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch saw the biggest drops at 7 percent and 5 percent, respectively.
“If the Future Ready Iowa goal (70 percent of the workforce earning a post high school credential) is to be attained, college-going gaps for minority and low-income students will likely need to be closed,” according to the report.
As a share of Iowa’s high school graduates, Hispanic students accounted for about 9 percent in 2018, up from just over 6 percent in 2013. Asian, black and multiracial high school populations also have increased, while the proportion of white students has declined — making closing achievement gaps paramount, said Meghan Oster, an Iowa College Aid researcher.
“If populations where we’re seeing the gaps in scores — in college-going, in college completion — are populations that are growing quickly, we can’t have increased college attainment without closing the gaps,” she said.
The report found notable drops in ACT scores for all students in every subject — English, math, reading, science and the composite total. English saw the steepest declines and the lowest scores.
Although Iowa still reigns as first in the nation in overall high school graduation rates, it has lost ground in several racial and ethnic categories — with its graduation ranking for Hispanic students slipping from sixth to 12th, for example. Its Asian graduation ranking slid from 15th to 21st.
Despite recent slides in enrollment, the percent of Iowans who have an associate degree or higher has ticked up from about 41 percent in 2013 to about 43 percent now, according to Iowa College Aid.
“It’s basically the difference between people who are in the college pipeline right now and people who are through the college pipeline, maybe a long time ago,” Sedrel said. “That 43 percent is a share of Iowans between 25 and 64, so some of them might have enrolled in college more than 40 years ago.”
The governor’s office in March announced a different post-secondary educational attainment rate — 60.2 percent, up about 2.6 percent from 2018 but about 10 percentage points shy of her goal. The governor’s figure is higher because her office includes sub-baccalaureate certificates and technical degrees, according to Sedrel.
To erase that 10-point gap, according to Iowa College Aid, the state needs more Iowans enrolling in college, more college students staying in Iowa and more non-residents with degrees relocating here.
In 2017, about half of Iowans 18 to 25 years old enrolled in two-year and four-year institutions said they planned to stay in Iowa, according to Iowa College Aid.
Out-of-state students in the same age range were less likely to stay — with about 43 percent at two-year institutions planning to leave and more than half at four-year schools saying they’re likely go leave.
“However, about a quarter of each age group were unsure of their location plans,” the report said. “If Iowa enacted policies to incentivize out-of-student students to stay in Iowa, such as broad student loan forgiveness, these students might stay in the state to help us reach our Future Ready Iowa goals.”
Higher ed benefits
The need for a more educated workforce helps Iowa — which is projecting 68 percent of its workforce will need education or training beyond high school by 2025.
But it also improves quality of life. Iowans with bachelor degrees earn 58 percent more than high school-only graduates. And those with some higher education report better health.
“We believe that college changes everything,” Oster said.