Regents trying to find cause of enrollment drop

DES MOINES — The Iowa Board of Regents is trying to solve the puzzle on what’s causing the drop in student enrollment at the three state universities.

The Board’s Jason Pontious discussed the issue at their meeting earlier this month. He says one mystery is why the number of students going to college after graduating high school started to drop before the pandemic. “The population here that has the lowest college going rate are white males who qualify for free and reduced price lunch,” he says. 

Pontious says they reached out to schools looking for answers. “We talked to  school counselors, some of the things we’ll hear is  ‘well, they’re going into apprenticeships’. While there is a growing number of students going into apprenticeships, and we have only been tracking that for up until recently, that’s only one percent of the population in 2020-2021,” Pontious says.”You also hear folks saying ‘they’re probably going into the military’, but the intent data for military has been going down over time as well.” 

He says the job market appears to be more of a factor. “Wages are up there, it’s easy to find a 15-dollar an hour job. And that’s generally seen as being the explanation for why this is happening,” Pontious says. “And in fact, you look at the intent data, and that has been going up over time. We’ve gotten a preview from our folks over at the Department of Ed, who they collect this data. And they said for this year, that number has jumped to 17 percent of students saying they’re going to enter employment.”

He says it has been a nationwide issues and some surveys –like one from Gallup asked people how important is a college education today. “So in 2013, 70 percent said very important, and has dropped a 51 percent in 2019 pre pandemic,” he says. 

Pontious says there appears to be a disconnect when you look at Iowa Workforce Development’s list of the top 50 Hot jobs — and the current list shows 96% of the top 50 require a bachelor’s degree or higher. “At a time where we probably need more people to be giving some kind of education — and I’m not just talking four-year degrees, but some education beyond high school — we are seeing less trust in higher ed, we are seeing a belief that it’s less important,” according to Pontious.

He says more people joining the workforce is a good thing — but he says that provides some headwind as the universities look at making decisions about how to grow going forward.