Rob Denson

Enrollment at Iowa community colleges has been decreasing since 2011 and the decline accelerated during the pandemic. However, the leaders of two community college districts that operate nine campuses say the dip isn’t as deep here as it is in other states.

Rob Densen is president of the Des Moines Area Community College which has six campuses in Ankeny, Boone, Carroll, Newton, Des Moines and West Des Moines. “The average community college nationally dropped 9.5%. At DMACC, we’ve been down 7% throughout the year,” Denson says. “We know that the largest single group of students who aren’t coming back are low income who were impacted by so many other things during the pandemic.”

A statewide report on community college enrollment in the current academic year isn’t available yet. In the previous 2019-2020 year, there was a 1.3% drop in students taking Iowa community college classes to earn credits for an associate’s degree. The number of students taking courses at an Iowa community college to earn professional certificates or licenses dropped 23% in the previous year. Densen says when classes resume in the fall, he expects an influx of students.

“So far, our preliminary numbers — applications, registrations — look very good for the fall,” Denson says.

Kristie Fisher is chancellor of the Iowa Valley Community College District which operates Ellsworth Community College in Iowa Falls, Marshalltown Community College and Iowa Valley Grinnell. “When the economy is really strong, our enrollments drop and when it’s not as strong we have people coming back seeking retraining,” she says, “but with Covid-19, we were in an area we’ve never been before…Iowa’s enrollments didn’t drop as much as the rest of the country and we’re strongly positioned to come back really quickly and serve students in our communities.”

Iowa Valley classes moved online in March of last year, but Fisher says the campuses didn’t completely close at the beginning of the pandemic.
“We had computer labs open for our students with really strict protocols because we knew our students didn’t have internet at home,” she says. “…We opened up our theater to the Marshall County Judicial District because they didn’t have a place for trials. They’re still there. Our hospital up in Iowa Falls moved into our recreation center because they needed a place for physical therapy. We did mask distribution, a Test Iowa site, vaccination sites — so while we were managing our students, we also doing all our communities needed us to do.”

Fisher and Densen made their comments during taping of the “Iowa Press” program that airs tonight on Iowa PBS.