Randy Evans | Iowa Freedom of Information Council
 
One of Iowa’s oldest colleges bought another year of existence last week, but the fate of our smaller institutions of higher education has received too little debate in general and zero discussion about what the state should do.

Trustees of Iowa Wesleyan University, the second-oldest college in Iowa, decided Nov. 15 to keep the school open through next school year, at least. But its financial future is anything but assured.

The Mount Pleasant school has been educating young men and women since 1842. It was established four years before Iowa became a state and five years before the University of Iowa opened its doors. Only Loras College in Dubuque is older, having been founded in 1839.

But Iowa Wesleyan’s 176 years of history means little in the light of today’s financial challenges.

The biggest of those challenges is enrollment. Iowa Wesleyan has about 575 students.

Figures compiled by the Iowa College Student Aid Commission show that Iowa Wesleyan’s enrollment is down 26 percent, or 215 students, in the past 10 years.

The Cedar Rapids Gazette reported this month that enrollment at Iowa’s private colleges has dropped more than 4,000 students, about 10 percent, in the past 10 years.

That puts Iowa Wesleyan at the high end of the enrollment losses. But the school is far from alone. Iowa College Student Aid Commission figures show: 

Simpson College in Indianola is down 567 students, or 28 percent. William Penn University in Oskaloosa is down 453 students, or 26 percent. Buena Vista University in Storm Lake is down 572 students, or 24 percent. Central College in Pella is down 321 students, or 21 percent.

With college tuition rising faster than Iowans’ incomes, the student recruitment challenges facing all of the state’s private colleges are growing. 

That task was made more difficult several years ago when the Iowa Board of Regents told the three state universities to recruit more in-state students. The schools, especially Iowa State University and the University of Iowa, responded by pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into advertising statewide in the quest for new students.

Not surprisingly, private colleges could not compete with that marketing effort. Enrollments in Ames and Iowa City climbed to record levels, and there has been a boom in building dormitories and apartments.

Missing in all of this has been any consideration of Iowa’s private colleges as economic engines. When state officials talk about economic development, their focus is on businesses, not academic institutions.

Charles Fluharty, a University of Iowa professor and Iowa Wesleyan trustee, told the Gazette that Wesleyan’s economic impact in southeastern Iowa is more than $55 million a year. “They have no idea what they are going to lose if this institution goes away,” he said. 

Fluharty is correct. Private colleges shape their communities, with athletic events, music and theater programs, lectures and other activities that draw people to campus.

State and local government in Iowa willingly give wealthy businesses grants and interest-free loans that often do not have to be repaid. 

Among the recipients of this economic development generosity is Apple, the first U.S. company with a market value to top $1 trillion (yes, trillion, with a T). Apple’s profit this year was $59 billion, about eight times more than Iowa state government’s general fund.

Apple’s new data center in Waukee will employ 50 people when it opens. Iowa Wesleyan’s employment easily tops that number.

Fluharty, the UI professor, said it is a mistake to think that closing Iowa Wesleyan would simply provide “right-sizing” of the supply of higher education with the demand for higher education.

“What’s unique about Iowa Wesleyan, and really important, is it’s in a region down there that has been underserved by higher education for some time,” Fluharty said. 

Not everyone who wants a college education wants to acquire it at an institution the size of UI or ISU, where one dormitory dining room can accommodate all the students Iowa Wesleyan has. 

Through its history, Iowa Wesleyan has provided the launch pad for some amazing Iowans.

James Van Allen grew up in Mount Pleasant and earned his Bachelor of Science degree there in 1935. Peggy Whitson grew up 150 miles to the west, in Beaconsfield. When she was looking for a college in 1981, she picked Iowa Wesleyan.

Van Allen went on to become one of the world’s space research pioneers. He designed an instrument package for the United States’ very first spacecraft, which was launched in 1958. Those instruments discovered that the Earth is encircled by belts of intense radiation —  a fact that shaped future space flights carrying monkeys, men and women.

Whitson earned her bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry. Instead of pursuing a teaching career, she went to work for NASA as a researcher. 

In 1996, she became an astronaut and continued her research on board the International Space Station. Before retiring a year ago, the farm kid from southern Iowa spent more time in space (665 days) than any other American in history.

Before we allow the school to fade into history next spring and before other private schools face that possible future, too, state officials should undertake a comprehensive study of ways Iowa can strengthen the financial health of our network of private colleges and universities.

If we can afford to do this for Apple and other hugely profitable companies, we ought to be able to do it for colleges that are the heart of several dozen communities in our state.

And in the long run, that will be better for the health of rural Iowa than continuing to pay for constructing more dormitories and classroom buildings in Ames and Iowa City.