Colleges in Nebraska and Iowa face troubling population trends that will make it hard to keep classrooms full over the next dozen years.
A national college organization, the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, says the Midwest will be particularly challenged with a 9.5 percent drop in high school graduates from 2018 to 2030.
“It doesn’t make you want to go out and build more dormitories,” said Scott Seevers, vice president for enrollment at Concordia University in Seward, Nebraska.
Enrollment at 27 colleges and universities in the region this fall shows a mix of winners and strugglers. Nine of those had enrollment gains, including Creighton University and Wayne State College, and 18 had declines, including the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Iowa State University.
David Tandberg, vice president for policy research with the Colorado-based State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, said colleges must look beyond the traditional student and find recruits among older adults, people whose families haven’t been to college and minority groups.
“The landscape has really changed and colleges are really struggling,” Tandberg said. “Some of them are going to have to reinvent themselves or they may close.”
Nebraska isn’t as challenged demographically as some other Midwestern states, but population gains over the next several years are expected to be in the Hispanic population. That population typically hasn’t attended college to the degree white students have.
And social media have made student recruitment more complicated. Kelly Bartling, a spokeswoman for the University of Nebraska at Kearney, said years ago a college could set up tables in high schools, erect booths at college fairs and send out some mail.
Now colleges and universities have divisions dedicated to strategizing on how to reach high school students and other potential recruits, Bartling said. “Think about the importance of a website,” she said. “Shopping for college has changed.”
But Tiffany Christian, a freshman, said it was old-fashioned kindness that made her choose Wayne State in northeast Nebraska.
“When I visited, they made it feel like home,” said Christian, of North Bend, Nebraska. “Like I was supposed to be there.”
She also said she found Wayne State affordable. She considered UNL and Peru State as well. “I’m 100 percent glad that I chose Wayne,” she said.
Some of the colleges’ enrollment results can be divided into three categories — winners, stuck in neutral and under pressure.
Enrollment at Midlands colleges and universities
|Nebraska Wesleyan||2,065||2,095||Plus 1.5|
|College of St. Mary||1,140||1,168||Plus 2.5|
|Nebraska Methodist||1,167||1,102||Minus 5.6|
|Nebraska Christian||148||134||Minus 9.5|
|Buena Vista (Iowa)||1,982||1,847||Minus 6.8|
|Drake (Iowa)||4,904||4,869||Minus 0.7|
|Morningside (Iowa)||2,788||2,697||Minus 3.3|
|Augustana (S.D.)||2,080||2,118||Plus 1.8|
|Wayne St.||3,182||3,498||Plus 9.9|
|Peru St.||1,870||1,807||Minus 3.4|
|Chadron St.||2,737||2,461||Minus 10.1|
|Iowa St.||35,993||34,992||Minus 2.8|
|Northern Iowa||11,907||11,212||Minus 5.8|
Wayne State’s 9.9 percent growth is especially surprising considering the fact that most other four-year public colleges in the area slipped. Those include UNL, UNK, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Chadron State, Peru State, Iowa State, Iowa and Northern Iowa.
Wayne State was so pleased that last month administrators treated hundreds of staffers and faculty members to cake and ice cream in Ramsey Theatre.
Jay Collier, Wayne State spokesman, said people were exuberant. “You never quite know until they’re all enrolled, and they show up in August,” Collier said of the students. He attributed the bump toward 3,500 to high-demand programs, such as criminal justice.
He also said new facilities such as the Center for Applied Technology, which opens for classes in the spring, and a crime-scene investigation facility have invigorated the campus.
Bellevue University enrollment went up 8.5 percent to 9,387. President Mary Hawkins said Bellevue has moved away from an online-heavy strategy to one in which Bellevue has dozens of business and community college partners across the country that fuel enrollment. Many of those students still take their courses online, but the key is the partnerships.
While Creighton’s enrollment jump was only 3 percent, it indicated the private Jesuit school’s momentum continues. Creighton had more success this year in recruiting local students.
Stuck in neutral
Omar Correa, UNO’s associate vice chancellor for enrollment management, said student recruitment will only become more competitive in the future. There will be, he said, “a smaller pie or smaller market share to work with.”
UNK’s Bartling said diminishing populations in rural areas challenge colleges in those areas even more. That places institutions such as UNK and many others across the Midwest at a competitive disadvantage, she said.
She said UNK must work harder than ever to tell prospective students about the university. The aim is to get them to visit. “Once you get here, you get it,” she said.
Bill Motzer, vice president for enrollment management at Nebraska Wesleyan, said his university’s growth of 1.5 percent fails to adequately show its record number of first-year students and transfer students, 537, breaking the mark set in the 1960s.
Concordia experienced an enrollment drop of 10.5 percent; Hastings College enrollment slid by 9.1 percent.
Seevers said his university’s undergraduate programs are flourishing, but its effort to capitalize on the online market for graduate students has slumped. Concordia had 1,019 students in online master’s degree courses three years ago. That has fallen to 600.
So many colleges are in the online market now, Seevers said, that expectations must be adjusted downward and online strategies reassessed.
Hastings College enrollment slid 9.1 percent, in large part because the college said goodbye to its two largest graduating classes ever, in spring 2018 and 2017.
“Hastings College 2.0” launches next fall with profound changes. Among those are a college-funded travel abroad experience for every student, an iPad Pro and a new scheduling system called a “modified block calendar.”
The modified block divides the traditional 16-week semester into three pieces — a single course in the first two weeks, and two classes each in the seven weeks after that and in the following seven weeks .
Susan Meeske, Hastings executive vice president, said she expects the college to provide “a superior product that students will be clamoring for.”
Travis Feezell, who took over as Hastings’ president last year, said it will be an exciting time for his college. “We’re doing things a little bit differently.”