Iowa State addresses freshman class sizes after fluctuations in enrollment


Enrollment Services Center on Apr. 5, 2019.

Iowa State’s enrollment has declined since its peak prior to the COVID-19 pandemic but may be shifting for another period of growth as freshman classes increase.

According to data gathered by the Daily, undergraduate enrollment was increasing steadily before the pandemic until its peak in 2016. In 2017 and 2018, enrollment stayed relatively stable but dropped by 4.48% in fall 2019, before the outbreak of the coronavirus.

In the years following the pandemic, 2020, 2021 and 2022, undergraduate enrollment declined each year by 5.12%, 3.87% and 2.20% respectively.

Director of Admissions Katharine Johnson Suski said Iowa State saw an unsustainable period of growth in the years leading up to a peak enrollment of 36,000 students in 2016.

“If you go out on Central Campus and you look at the sidewalks, you’ll see that there’s like an extra foot of concrete on either side,” Suski said. “That was because students were literally falling off the sidewalk.”

Suski said upscaling so quickly during that period of significant growth was challenging.

“We started to kind of even out, and then the pandemic happened, which just changed everything in a number of ways,” Suski said.

Suski said enrollment fluctuates based on the number of new students coming in and the number of students graduating. Iowa State’s drop in enrollment is slowing down as graduating class sizes decrease and freshman class sizes increase.

According to data gathered by the Daily, the size of the freshman class declined by 10.09% in 2020 but had been declining since 2016, with an 8.14% decline in 2017 and a 6.74% decline in 2019. In 2021 and 2022, the freshman class sizes increased by 2.79% and 6.35%, respectively.

For the 2021-22 school year, Iowa State awarded 7,821 degrees, which was 16.45% higher than in 2012-2013 (6,716). The number of degrees the university awards each year has declined by 7.18% since 2018.

Suski said overall retention rates have been stable and even stronger than expected after the pandemic. She said the fact that the university offered more pass-or-fail classes might have led to fewer students being academically dismissed, at least during the pandemic.

Suski said the Offices of Admissions and New Student Programs put on several events, large and small, to try and drive up enrollment. On top of events and meetups, the university also used social media and other marketing tools.

One large event Iowa State started during spring 2022 was Admitted Student Day, where Suski said students with admission offers are invited to campus to gain an extra understanding of Iowa State. Suski said through Admitted Student Day, the university saw an increase in students accepting offers and committing to attending Iowa State.

Emili Johnson, assistant manager of reporting and project management for the Office of Admissions, was the lead project manager for Admitted Student Day. Johnson said Admitted Student Day was a good opportunity to showcase the definition of innovation at Iowa State.

“What we did was we really engaged with the colleges to say, ‘What are those programs that you want front facing, that students are really going to get the most engagement, excitement and information from?’” Johnson said.

Johnson said the colleges did a great job of showcasing interesting courses, research done by students on campus and the innovative spirit Iowa State has.

“It was a really awesome collaboration,” Johnson said. “It was a lot of meetings, but I feel like when students came, you definitely saw throughout the day the stars in their eyes and the wonder of ‘Wow, I didn’t know I could do all of these different things.”

Johnson said on top of showcasing Iowa State’s campus and offerings, Admitted Student Day served to help engage prospective students and help them accept their offers. She said they wanted to give students the type of celebration that’s usually reserved for student-athletes.

“One thing that we did was we actually had a signing table and we had certificates of intent; we had Cy there, [and] it was in the bookstore,” Johnson said. “It was a really proud moment I think for a lot of students, even students that had accepted prior, because it was almost like they were solidifying their choice to become Cyclones.”

Johnson said during Admitted Student Day the university was able to transition students into signing up for orientation and give them information to ensure they are prepared when they start in the fall.

“It’s really a multifaceted campaign to communicate with students and other pieces as we prepare for orientation,” Suski said.

Suski said Iowa State has a renewed focus in several areas of recruitment, including increasing recruiters on the ground through Iowa, nationally and even in countries like China and India. She said international student enrollment declined during the pandemic but is slowly growing.

According to the Office of the Registrar, the 2023 freshman class was the most diverse in the university’s history, with 671 multicultural students accounting for 20.2% of the freshman class.