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University of Northern Iowa still feeling COVID-19 impact as fall enrollment drops

CEDAR FALLS — The impact of COVID-19 is still being felt in the University of Northern Iowa’s enrollment.

UNI announced Thursday a total fall enrollment of 9,231 as of Sept. 3, the 10th day of classes. That is a drop of 291 students from fall 2020.

“There are a couple of primary areas contributing to the decrease,” said Kristin Woods, associate vice president for enrollment management. One is a drop in international enrollments, which the pandemic contributed to since some students were unable to get visa appointments due to embassy closures. UNI this fall enrolled students from 56 countries as well as 45 states and all 99 Iowa counties.

“Second, we’ve had a significant increase in our graduation rate,” said Woods, so students are spending less time finishing degrees on campus. That is among the bright spots UNI officials pointed out amidst a years-long downward enrollment trend.

During the past four years, the number of students at the university has been decreasing, but it lost far fewer students this fall than a year ago. Northern Iowa had 2,676 more students in the fall of 2017, when enrollment was essentially unchanged from the year before. Last year, when greater COVID-19 pandemic restrictions were in place and no vaccine was available, enrollment dropped 975 students.

“It’s been an unpredictable couple of years,” said Woods, due to the pandemic.

Iowa's two other public universities also announced Thursday that their fall enrollment declined. Iowa State University in Ames has a total of 30,708 students, 1,117 fewer than a year ago. The University of Iowa in Iowa City has 31,206 students, down 394 from last year.

UNI officials highlighted graduation rates that have reached an all-time high as well as growth in its incoming class of freshman for the second straight year.

“We’re very encouraged by the continued growth of our freshman classes and the increases in our graduation rates,” President Mark Nook said in a news release. “Both are a reminder of the appeal and value of the accessible, high-quality education offered through UNI.”

This fall’s freshman enrollment increased by 5% over last year to 1,554 students, and increased by 6% over the fall 2019 freshman class. The class of 2025 includes an increase in both Iowa residents and out-of-state students.

“We’re really excited about an increase for a second consecutive year in our freshman class, that’s going to have a really positive impact on our community over time,” said Woods. “I think paired with our continued increase in graduation rates, we’re just really pleased for our students.”

Graduation rates for UNI students are at record levels and nearly 20 percentage points higher than those of similar universities, officials said. For students completing courses last spring, Woods said the six-year graduation rate was 69%, five percentage points higher than the previous year. The four-year rate was 45%, a two percentage point increase from the previous year, and the three-year rate was 7%, one percentage point higher.

For the set of similar peer universities, Woods said the most recent five-year average of graduation rates is 47%. UNI’s five-year average is 66%.

UNI’s graduation rates are based on students who begin at the university as freshmen and continue through graduation, some of whom finish ahead of the four-year schedule.

“One in 14 of our new freshmen are now finishing in three years,” said Woods, referring to the 7% rate, which is also a record for the university. Officials said the continued increases in graduation rates are a direct result of UNI’s commitment to student success.

Not only are students graduating in less time, university officials pointed out they also have the second-lowest average debt of graduates from all four-year colleges and universities in Iowa. According to the Iowa College Aid Commission, UNI’s class of 2019 had an average debt of $23,671 at graduation. Students at the state’s two other public universities had a debt load of more than $4,000 higher.

In addition to welcoming more freshmen, the campus community has seen record involvement in welcome week activities among new students this fall, with hundreds of students participating in the many social and educational events offered during the semester’s opening weeks.

“It’s encouraging to see the excitement of our students as they return to a wide range of campus activities this fall,” said Woods. “They’re highly involved in academic and social programs and focused on their educational goals. It’s been a great start to the new academic year.”

This story has been updated to include enrollment numbers for the University of Iowa.


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Education Reporter

I cover local schools and higher education for The Courier, where I’ve been a reporter for the past two decades. I’m a Minnesota native and have previously worked for newspapers there and in Illinois.

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