ISU touts some successes amid continued decline in enrollment pre-dating COVID-19. What are the trends?

Phillip Sitter
Ames Tribune

Iowa State University lost more enrollment since last year, though in most cases, not as much as in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the latest fall enrollment data released Thursday.

Iowa State's enrollment this fall of 30,708 students — including undergraduate, graduate and veterinary medicine students — is 1,117 students less than fall 2020 enrollment, or about a 3.5% decline.

The university's enrollment drop between 2019 and 2020 — reflecting the start of the pandemic and its disruptions that began in the spring of 2020 — was 1,566 students, or almost a 4.7% decline.

Iowa State's largest colleges by enrollment are engineering, liberal arts and business.

Most of the university's colleges that continued to lose enrollment lost fewer students in the past year than between 2019 and 2020. A few colleges — business, design and veterinary medicine — saw small gains, while human sciences lost more students since last fall than between 2019 and 2020.

University spokesperson Angie Hunt said, "Several factors may influence enrollment differences between the colleges, including student interest in majors that match their career goals. The level of fluctuation varies each year, so it is difficult to pinpoint a specific reason."

The biggest numerical enrollment loses by college since the fall before the pandemic have been in engineering, liberal arts and sciences, and human sciences. Human sciences and agriculture and life sciences each lost more than liberal arts in terms of a percentage of their students.

In the news release, Iowa State listed a 6% increase in new first-year students and a 1% increase in graduate students as successes.

President Wendy Wintersteen said in the release, "Students are eager to embrace Iowa State’s innovative mindset and enhance their classroom learning with undergraduate research, learning communities and many experiential opportunities such as those offered in our new Student Innovation Center."

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Where do the latest enrollment numbers fit into larger trends?

Enrollment declines at Iowa State are nothing new, even despite the pandemic.

The university's fall enrollment grew from 26,856 in 2008 to a record-high 36,660 in 2016 but then declined each year before the pandemic.

That's a trend administrators have said they expected based on demographic and economic changes.

The latest numbers this week mean that Iowa State's enrollment is down more than 8% — more than 2,600 students — since the fall before the pandemic but up more than 14% since 2008.

Students at Iowa State this fall represented every U.S. state and 112 countries — three more countries than last year.

The number of international students — who currently represent 8.2% of students, a slight increase over last year — continued to decline, however.

The university's record high of 4,131 enrolled international students in 2016 has slipped to 2,532 this fall — including 60 fewer students than last year.

That decline, at least before the pandemic, reflected a nationwide trend of fewer international admissions attributed to stricter visa and immigration laws.

Iowans represent 56.1% of the student body this fall, down slightly from 56.3% in 2020 — a decline of 679 students.

Since fall 2020, Iowa State has shifted 1% toward having more students who are women — who are now 45% of the student body.

Iowa State also reported that its freshman class this fall is the most diverse in the university's history, with 980 "multicultural freshmen" enrolled, representing 18.2% of the new class.

There are 5,387 freshmen this fall, 316 more than last year.

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What about enrollment this fall at Iowa's other public universities?

The University of Iowa announced Thursday that its total fall enrollment of 31,206 students is 394 less than fall 2020.

That would be an enrollment decline for UI of about 1.25% since last fall.

Iowa's freshmen class of 4,521 students — "up slightly from last year" — is smaller than Iowa State's this fall, but is more diverse, with about 22% of Iowa freshmen identifying as African American, American Indian, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, Asian, Latinx/a/o, or two or more ethnicities, according to the university in a news release.

About 60% of Iowa's freshmen this fall are residents of the state and 1% are international students.

The University of Northern Iowa reported Thursday that its freshmen class grew for the second year in a row — 5% over last year and 6% over fall 2019 to 1,554 students.

Total enrollment this fall at Northern Iowa was reported to be 9,231.

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Phillip Sitter covers education for the Ames Tribune, including Iowa State University and PreK-12 schools in Ames and elsewhere in Story County. Phillip can be reached via email at psitter@gannett.com. He is on Twitter @pslifeisabeauty.