Iowa Community Colleges Experience Surge in Enrollment Amid National Difficulties

Iowa’s community colleges are experiencing growth in enrollment for 2023 due to successful recruitment efforts and partnerships with schools and businesses.

According to the 2023 Fall Enrollment Report released by the Iowa Department of Education, enrollment in community colleges has increased by 3.8% compared to last year. The total number of students enrolled across the state is 85,362. Notably, part-time student enrollment has reached an all-time high and makes up two-thirds of the total enrollment.

While the current enrollment figures have not yet reached pre-pandemic levels (which saw over 88,000 students attending community colleges in 2019), this marks the second consecutive year of increased enrollment in the state.

“Despite the challenges faced by higher education nationwide, I believe we are doing well,” stated Emily Shields, Executive Director of Community Colleges for Iowa.

Out of the 15 community colleges in the state, nine have experienced an increase in enrollment. Des Moines Area Community College has the highest number of enrolled students at 24,418, with an impressive year-over-year increase of nearly 13%. Indian Hills Community College, on the other hand, has seen a decrease in enrollment by 3.7%, with a total of 3,236 students.

In terms of enrollment trends, Iowa is slightly behind the national average. The report states that national enrollment in two-year institutions has increased by 4.4%, aided by a 9% increase in part-time students. In Iowa, part-time student enrollment has seen a smaller increase of 0.8%.

Both Iowa and the rest of the country have experienced a drop in full-time enrollment, with the state reporting a decrease of 0.8% and the U.S. seeing a decrease of 0.2%.

The report highlights an increase in joint enrollment, where students simultaneously take high school and college credit classes. In Iowa, joint enrollment has seen a 7.9% increase, while the national average increased by 8.8%. Shields believes that Iowa has been ahead of other states in tapping into the joint enrollment market and has already witnessed significant growth in this area.

One of the main challenges faced by both four-year universities and community colleges is the anticipated decrease in enrollment. Shields explains that there are two factors contributing to this problem. Firstly, there will be fewer high school graduates in the coming years, resulting in a smaller pool of applicants. Secondly, despite the fact that the majority of careers require some form of certification or degree, fewer high school graduates are choosing to pursue post-secondary education.

“Nationally, we are facing various pressures that are lowering enrollment, and locally, we are trying to address these challenges in different ways. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain sufficient enrollment, keep college affordable, and attract students,” Shields explains.

Efforts at the national level to expand financial aid for specific programs may help increase enrollment in certification and other non-degree training programs. Shields mentions the Bipartisan Workforce Pell Act, which has passed out of the U.S. House Education and Workforce Committee. This act seeks to extend Pell Grant eligibility to short-term workforce programs, similar to those offered by Iowa’s community colleges.

With the impending enrollment decline and decreased interest in pursuing higher education after high school, Community Colleges for Iowa and its partner institutions are expanding their recruitment programs to various areas. Shields emphasizes that community colleges cannot solely target specific types of students, whether they are recent high school graduates or working adults. As a result, they are implementing career and college transition counselors in high schools and forming partnerships with businesses to reach both traditional and nontraditional students.

Based on the 7.9% increase in joint enrollment and the 3.1% rise in Iowa Career and Technical Education enrollment, Shields believes that these efforts are yielding positive results.

“I think these numbers truly reflect the extensive efforts we have made to align with the state’s workforce, strengthen partnerships with high schools, and offer a wide range of educational options for Iowans,” Shields concludes.

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