Tough times for Iowa colleges



Buena Vista University’s second round of program reductions should help all Iowans appreciate the difficulties faced by one of our state’s treasures: our network of private colleges spread to the four corners. All private colleges are going through similar rituals trying to figure out how to make ends meet. Last year, Iowa Wesleyan was on the brink of closing. Simpson went through a round of program cuts. So did Clarke. This is Buena Vista’s second round — previous President Fred Moore eliminated religion and philosophy and social work as majors at the Presbyterian school, and new President Josh Merchant proposes to eliminate chemistry, music and theatre majors.

Merchant says this is an opportunity to concentrate on new courses of study that show higher regional student demand — agriculture being one of them. Students will still be offered chemistry classes, just not a major. There will still be music programs and plays. But when you can’t offer chemistry as a major for lack of student demand it is a painful reminder of what a private college in a rural area is up against.

Most of these colleges are situated in rural county seats — Wartburg, Central, Luther, William Penn, Dordt, Graceland, Grinnell. They are vital economic engines for their communities and their regions. They bring out-of-state tuition dollars into Iowa because of their strong reputations. Yet, we don’t hear much talk at all in the legislature about how to help these institutions, some of which are struggling for their very existence. Mount Pleasant is half the town without Iowa Wesleyan. We cannot imagine Storm Lake without Buena Vista.

Forty years ago, the legislature cared enough to create the Iowa Tuition Grant program that was designed to equalize the cost of tuition at a private college with that of a state university. That program has never kept pace with inflation (just like natural resource protection, which is aimed to benefit rural areas). Legislators, the governor and the board of regents have been sucking the life out of small colleges while state universities are over-crowded.

The problem is not management or academic quality. Buena Vista has never frittered away money, and is known for knowing its market. It has invested especially in high-quality science and business programs. It has been known as one of the top teacher colleges in the Midwest. The problem is that there aren’t enough students in the market, and with college costs rising families demand majors that will produce income sufficient to pay off the debt. If you want a low-paying music teacher job, the choice of the student from Odebolt now is the University of Northern Iowa.

Buena Vista is fortunate enough to have an endowment that can support it for about another 20 years at the current rate as it sorts out its market conundra, according to Merchant. His job is to make Buena Vista sustainable for the 20 years after that. Not all colleges are so fortunate. Iowa is slowly losing one of its unique, major assets: a network of high-quality private colleges that help drive regional economies. That’s because this state is slowly losing its commitment to education generally. There is a direct relationship.

Ernst underwater

Previous polls have put Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, underwater by double digits in net approval rating. The most reliable and newest poll, The Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll published on Sunday, finds Ernst with a 47% approval rating. It’s not as bad, but it’s still bad. She has dropped more than 10 points in approval rating as President Trump started a trade war, put a cap on the ambitions of the ethanol industry, and tried to sell out our national security interests in Ukraine with a criminal scheme to slander Joe Biden. Ernst has stood by while all that happened. She is under water because she has refused to do her job as a senator and hold this criminal administration accountable. She refused to see evidence or hear witnesses in the Senate impeachment trial. Nearly 80% of Iowans wanted to see that evidence and hear former National Security Advisor John Bolton testify. Sen. Chuck Grassley’s approval rating also has fallen, but he remains in positive territory. He is not up for election in November. Ernst is. She is vulnerable, and the Democratic Party makes a huge mistake if it flies over Iowa again in the general election.

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