Decade long enrollment climb may reach its end

Danielle Gehr

After a decade of climbing enrollment, Iowa State expects to see a slight decrease for this Fall semester.

Before final numbers come out Thursday, the past 10 years of a growing student population shaped the colleges, as some worked to solve space and resource issues for the influx of students, while others strategically kept their student numbers at a constant rate.

The College of Design remains the outlier as all other colleges increased, Design’s enrollment stayed relatively consistent. The difference of undergraduate enrollment in 2002 and 2016 for the College of Engineering is over 3,000 students. For Design, that number is nine.

Luis Rico-Gutierrez, the dean of the College of Design, said to understand why their numbers remained the same, one must understand the structure of their programs.

“If we were to face the same kind of growth [as other colleges], the only way that I have to do this is, I need to build more studios,” Rico-Gutierrez said. “Our strategy is not to grow as fast.”

Students in Design create large scale projects that require spacious desks limiting the number of students one classroom can hold. On top of this, a studio space is dedicated to one specific group of students, 24 hours a day, for the whole semester.

This makes it more difficult for the college to keep up with rapidly increasing numbers.

“This is not only the best way we know how to teach design. It’s also, for most of our disciplines, our accreditation is based on that, so we can’t change the model even if we want to,” Rico-Gutierrez said.

Rico-Gutierrez also said the lack of growth could be the cause of the economic recession which surrounded the housing market.

He said students were turned away from design, specifically architecture, because of fears that they would not make enough money to support themselves. 

“The financial crisis was all around housing, and that industry completely stopped, and that is what was in the newspapers,” Rico-Gutierrez said. 

From 2008 to 2012, the College of Design saw only one year where Fall enrollment increased. 

“Even in the middle of that, the recognition of what we’re doing here at Iowa State kept our number relatively flat where there’s other programs that were really losing a great deal of students,” Rico-Gutierrez said. 

The past 10 years looked very different for the College of Engineering as they had the most growth out of all the colleges and passed the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences as the largest college at Iowa State. 

“One of the things that’s very important to all of us in [the College of Engineering] is staying focused on our primary mission which is providing a high-quality experiential based education to our students,” Sarah Rajala, the dean of the College of Engineering, said. 

Rajala was tasked with taking a program she described as experiential, meaning smaller classes and more hands on work, and expanding it to keep up with the growth of its student population.

This meant hiring more faculty, finding more space for the students and overall maintaining the quality of the education. 

Rajala said the College of Engineering anticipates the undergraduate enrollment to decrease and the graduate enrollment to increase, both only slightly, leaving the numbers at about even with last year’s.

Looking further ahead, Rajala said their enrollment growth should continue to slow down a bit.

“The quality of the programs we offer for the cost to the students is very good. Our costs are low, quite low compared to many of our peers or peer plus institutions,” Rajala said. 

David Acker, an associate dean in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), said most of the content they teach can’t be taught in lecture halls of 400 students. Like Engineering, CALS takes on an experiential learning program as well. 

CALS has not seen growth as large as the College of Engineering, but out of all the colleges, CALS is the only one to increase every year over the past 11 years.

Acker attributes the growth to a number of reasons, the first being the college’s name switch to the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in 2005 from the College of Agriculture.

“[The name change] sent a signal I think to students and to parents that this is a pretty big tent here. Like liberal arts and sciences, we have a lot of majors. We have 25 different majors and you can’t do agriculture without life sciences, so that was an important first step in rebranding ourselves,” Acker said.

Acker also said the college’s conscious decision to become more welcoming to women and multicultural students contributed to the growth. Women, for the first time in the college’s history, outnumber men.

“We could’ve stayed with the same number of faculty and added all those students and if you were in a business, you’d think, ok, lower cost, increase your customers, you make more money. So, what we were very aware of was we have to keep pace with the student growth,” Acker said.

Acker said the college anticipates a decrease in enrollment for this semester, and said by looking at decreasing numbers of Iowa high school graduates over the past few years they knew a decrease was coming.