Iowa College Aid Report: College trends hindering workforce training

Iowa report finds enrollment and financial aid decrease


Three years after then-Gov. Terry Branstad set the goal of getting 70 percent of working Iowans some form of postsecondary education or training by 2025, a state agency reports only minimal progress.

A “Condition of Higher Education in Iowa” report, produced every two years by Iowa College Aid — which was created by the Legislature — shows the share of Iowans with some postsecondary education has increased from 58 percent in 2014 to 60 percent in 2016 to 61 percent in the new 2018 iteration — about 9 percentage points behind target.


That means Iowa will need to sharply quicken its pace — getting more people into training or persuading those already with training to stay in the state or move here.

“Unfortunately, since the release of our most recent report in 2016, Iowa has made only modest gains across higher education indicators,” Iowa College Aid Executive Director Karen Misjak wrote in a message attached to the new report, released last week.

Experts have differing theories about why progress is slow, but the report found declines in both higher education enrollment and in financial aid applications.

Those declines in Iowa might mean more high school graduates are jumping directly into jobs — aplenty now in Iowa, which boasts one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation.

But those high school diploma-only jobs aren’t reliable, said Iowa College Aid Communication Coordinator Elizabeth Keest Sedrel.

“The number of jobs that require a high school diploma or less has been dropping in Iowa, even during the recovery,” Sedrel said.

As those positions are replaced by ones demanding specific training or college education — often in the areas of science, technology, engineering or math — non-postsecondary-trained workers will stay stuck in lower income brackets while employers scramble to find staff to meet their needs.

“Students who choose not to continue education or training beyond high school — even if they can land a job today — will be less employable for the rest of their lives than students who do choose to continue their education,” Sedrel said.

Substantiating those assertions are data in the new report showing 2016 unemployment rates compared with educational attainment.

Iowans with bachelor’s degrees or higher reported an unemployment rate of 1.7 percent, compared with a 3.1 percent rate for those with some college or an associate degree, and 4.3 percent for those with a high school diploma only.

Iowa’s unemployment rate today is at an 18-year low of 2.5 percent, a figure that could be even smaller if the about 44,000 Iowans looking for work could find it amid the 60,000-some statewide job openings, Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend recently said.

Townsend earlier this month identified a skills gap as the barrier between job-seekers and jobs. The new report shows that while Iowa experienced a net gain in jobs between 2011 and 2016 — even as the population held steady — it lost 81,000 jobs held by workers with a high school diploma or less.

Jobs that saw the most growth — with 98,000 added during that time — were those requiring a bachelor’s degree or higher. To satisfy the projected 68 percent of jobs in Iowa that will require some postsecondary credential come 2025, 150,000 more Iowans must attain some post-high school education.

“Reaching this goal will not only require an increase in Iowa’s educational attainment rates, but will also require keeping college graduates in Iowa and attracting highly educated non-Iowans to live in the state,” the report found.

Many experts consider Iowa’s higher education options a key lure.

Enrollment Declines

But college enrollment is going down in Iowa, according to the new Iowa College Aid report.

Even as Iowa boasts the No. 1 high school graduation rate in the nation, it falls to No. 27 for residents with associate degrees or higher; No. 35 for those with bachelor’s degrees; and No. 41 for those with graduate degrees, according to the report.

The brunt of Iowa’s higher education enrollment declines since 2010 have come from for-profit private institutions, where numbers have fallen 85 percent with recent closures like at Ashford University. In 2016, it shuttered its bricks-and-mortar campus in Iowa that served more than 600 students.


But community college enrollment also dropped 14 percent between 2010 and 2017.

And so did enrollment at Iowa’s nonprofit private institutions, which experienced a 7 percent loss over that time, according to the report.

Iowa’s public universities between 2010 and 2017, conversely, experienced steady enrollment increases, though the University of Iowa and Iowa State University intentionally slowed growth recently amid state funding cuts.

For institutions in Eastern Iowa, some aligned with the statewide trends and some bucked them — if only by a small margin.

Cedar Rapids’ Coe College, for instance, reporting total enrollment this fall of 1,369, the largest total degree-seeking enrollment in its history, up from 1,342 last year.

Mount Vernon’s Cornell College reported a slight increase in total enrollment, from 1,009 to 1,028, although its first-year student count dipped to 296 from 300.

Cedar Rapids’ Mount Mercy University saw a slight drop in total students, from 1,848 last fall to 1,835 this fall, as did Kirkwood Community College, reporting total fall 2018 enrollment of 14,237, down slightly from last fall’s 14,405.

The Iowa College Aid report ties declining community college interest to the economic recovery. But community colleges are imperative in helping Iowa attain its workforce goals, according to educators, who increasingly are operating under the premise that not all achievement paths look the same.

During a panel discussion at last week’s Iowa Ideas conference, hosted by The Gazette, West Branch High School STEM teacher Matt Cain said teachers are moving away from “college- vs. career-kid” rhetoric.

“We send quite a lot of kids to four-year universities, who maybe that wasn’t the best choice,” Cain said.

Demographic detail in the new report supports the need for a new educator mind-set, with more than 56 percent of black undergraduates enrolled in community colleges — exceeding their white, Hispanic and Asian counterparts.

Undergraduates identifying as Hispanic also enroll in community college at a higher rate than white and Asian students, and minority groups are growing in Iowa. The report indicates about 87 percent of Iowa children in 2005 identified as white only. In 2016 that figure was down to 79 percent.

“Iowa’s minority population is young and growing,” according to the new report. “While the median age for white Iowans is nearly 41, the median ages for Hispanic, black, and Asian Iowans are all under 30.”

Those population shifts, when paired with the demand for more postsecondary-educated Iowans, exacerbate the need for financial aid — which also is dropping, the report shows.

Aid left on the table


For the 2016-17 academic year, the number of Iowans who completed the “free application for federal student aid” — or FAFSA, necessary to land any federal assistance —— was 157,444, down 5 percent from the previous year.

That continued a downward trend since 2011, perhaps “reflective of Iowa’s recovery from the Great Recession,” according to the report.

As for state financial aid, scholarship and grant appropriations peaked in 2014-15 at about $71 million and have fallen to $63.6 million in 2017-18.

At the same time, according to the report, the portion of low-income students in Iowa public schools has swelled — climbing from 27 percent of K-12 students qualifying for free- or reduced-price lunch in 2000-01 to 41 percent in the 2016-17 school year.

“Poverty is far more prevalent among racial minorities in Iowa than among white residents,” according to the report. “The poverty rates for Hispanic and black Iowans are more than twice and three times the rate for white Iowans, respectively.”

With the sticker price for higher education climbing across Iowa and the nation, money stands as an oft-cited barrier to attaining a degree. But, Iowa experts say, students leave tens of millions of available aid on the table simply because they don’t ask for it — or don’t know how to.


“I do think there are a lot of students, particularly that are first generation, that just don’t understand the process, that just don’t know, what do I need to do?” Mark Wiederspan, executive research officer with Iowa College Aid said last week during an Iowa Ideas panel. “And that serves as such a barrier to them, that they just can’t go to college.”

The new Iowa College Aid report illustrates how much lower the actual cost of higher education can be after federal, state and institutional aid is subtracted. In 2015-16, for example, the net price —— after the aid — to attend a public university was 71 percent of the stated cost; 57 percent at community colleges; and 52 percent at private, nonprofit institutions.

Stephen Schmidt / The Gazette / The Gazette

At some of the local institutions, numbers are even better. Coe reports, for instance, that 99 percent of its students received financial aid or scholarships in fall 2017 and fall 2018. Historically, between 85 and 90 percent of all full-time Coe students file the FAFSA. And for fall 2018, the total amount of gift aid topped $14 million.

Likewise, Mount Mercy this year saw a 13 percent increase in first-year students submitting the FAFSA. And 100 percent of students who applied received some aid.

Cornell’s financial aid budget for the 2018-19 school year is estimated at $24.5 million, up from $23.2 million — with 99.8 percent of its students receiving some financial assistance.

And, even as Iowa’s public universities have warned of rising tuition rates in the coming years, they’ve also committed to make need-based aid a priority.

“Future Ready Iowa,” the state initiative sparked by the governor’s goal of getting 70 percent of Iowa’s workforce some education or training past high school by 2025, includes among its components a new “last-dollar scholarship program” that will allow Iowans to earn a tuition-free associate degree in high-need programs.

Those scholarships will become available in the 2019-20 academic year, which is why Iowa College Aid officials report reason to believe the state can accelerate progress toward its educational goal.

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