Standing in the heart of the Iowa State University campus on a clear spring day in May, college-bound Hailey Buzynski said she could see herself becoming a Cyclone.
The West Des Moines high school senior who was interested in pursuing a career in special education had been sold on the University of Northern Iowa after attending an open house there. But following her official tour of Iowa State’s scenic campus in Ames, Buzynski, 17, found herself on the fence.
“They both do well with education, and I like UNI’s smaller campus,” she said. “But I also like all the opportunities here.”
Two hours east in Iowa City, Clare Klostermann, 18, of Bankston, praised the student volunteer who gave her a walking tour of the UI campus, where she’s planning to begin her college career in the fall. Klostermann said the UI was her top choice based on the financial aid package it offered and on her career aspirations — she wants to go to medical school.
“It was the best fit for my field of study,” she said.
The Board of Regents recently turned its attention — and that of Iowa’s three public universities — to recruiting local students such as Buzynski and Klostermann by approving a new method for allocating state higher-education funds that ties a majority of the dollars to resident enrollment.
The change — if rolled out over one year — would pull $47.8 million in allocations from the UI and make ISU the state’s top funded regent institution.
Some UI officials, regents and legislators have expressed concern about potential unintended consequences of the new funding system. But proponents said the old way of allocating state dollars was outdated and perverse, and this change will better align taxpayer dollars with regent priorities.
Because the UI has lagged in its enrollment of in-state students — it’s the only public university in Iowa with fewer resident students today than in 1981 — Board President Bruce Rastetter has challenged the university to compete harder for Iowans.
Specifically, Rastetter has mentioned campus tours, visits and outreach efforts as areas the UI campus can improve — based on anecdotal feedback he’s received.
“I really think the University of Iowa can compete,” Rastetter said at a recent Iowa City Noon Rotary Club meeting.
President Sally Mason agreed following the board’s approval of new funding metrics on Wednesday, saying “Hawkeyes love a challenge,” and so does she.
“We will adapt. We will innovate, just as we have done with every change that has come our way,” Mason wrote in an email to the campus community on Friday. “In fact, I think this revenue model provides a great opportunity for the University of Iowa to show how dynamic and nimble we can be while maintaining the world-class institution we have become.”
Mason has said the UI is poised to grow its resident and non-resident enrollment — with new academic and residence buildings on line — and it’s going to become aggressive in going after both sects of prospective students.
But some critics say they’re concerned about what increasing competition among institutions with different strengths could mean for the universities, their programs and the state as a whole.
“This competition ought to be left to the sports teams,” Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, said. “This is putting a huge incentive to compete for Iowa kids, and I don’t think that will be healthy for higher education in Iowa.”
‘It can make it or break it’
The new funding model, which replaces a decades-old one that didn’t weigh enrollment or performance, ties:
•60 percent of state higher-education dollars to resident enrollment
•15 percent to progress and attainment
•10 percent to access
•5 percent to sponsored research
•5 percent to enrollment of graduate and professional students
•5 percent is left up to the regents.
It will be phased in over a three-year period beginning in the 2016 budget year and will cap the amount of money that can move from one university to another at 2 percent of the 2013 allocation.
According to 2014 figures, 53 percent of UI students are Iowans compared with 60 percent at ISU and 89 percent at UNI.
If nothing changes in the universities’ proportion of in-state and out-of-state students, the new funding model will pull about $13 million a year from the UI’s allocation.
That’s why UI officials said they’re rolling out new and innovative recruiting methods, including advertising and outreach campaigns, to bolster what they already do. And Emil Rinderspacher, director of UI admissions, said that’s a lot.
The UI admissions office welcomes 27,000 visitors to campus a year — including about 11,000 prospective students — and it sends email and mail notifications to tens of thousands more. Admissions officials visit hundreds of high schools in Iowa in hopes of bringing more visitors to campus.
“The visits are the highest-yielding recruiting strategy we do,” Rinderspacher said.
The UI offers daily visits and walking tours, group sessions and large events that include student panels, faculty fairs, bus tours and residence-hall walk-throughs. Rinderspacher said 45 percent of enrolled UI freshman visit campus before starting classes — 66 percent among resident students.
Everyone who visits gets follow-up emails, Rinderspacher said. In fact, prospective students who have visited campus get an average of 39 pieces of communication, he said.
“We work really hard,” Rinderspacher said.
The admissions office targets 10 states in its recruiting, including neighbors Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Nebraska.
“But our priority is Iowa,” he said.
The admissions office tradiitonall starts actively recruiting students in their junior years, according to Rinderspacher. But, he added, this year the UI reached out to high school sophomores, and it will go even younger — to the freshman class — in the future.
“We know the campus visit is really important,” Rinderspacher said.
As with the UI, Iowa State and UNI offer daily tours, group sessions and larger events for several hundred prospective students and family members. As many as 500 people attend each of the 12 Experience Iowa State events in the fall and spring, said Stephanie Salasek, associate director of ISU admissions.
Those include panel discussions with students and opportunities to visit classes and meet with faculty, Salasek said.
“Always our goal is to get students to campus, whether it’s through a high school visit or a college fair or over the phone,” she said. “It’s when students and their families get on campus and can touch it and feel it and smell it and really see if they fit in here.”
Salasek said ISU might not be for everyone, but admissions officials want to make sure every prospective student in Iowa checks it out — just to make sure.
“Overall, the campus visit is the biggest decision-maker,” she said. “It can make it or break it.”
Concerns about gaming the system
During an ISU tour last month, admissions counselor Matt Dikeman told a group of prospective students that ISU uses the “regent admission index” to help decide who gets in. That index scores prospective students on a host of factors such as grade-point average, ACT or SAT scores, and class rank.
Students with scores above 245 qualify for automatic admission to the three public universities, but institutions can choose to admit students with scores below that number.
In the fall 2013, regent documents show, the UI admitted 20.8 percent of student applicants with scores below 245, ISU admitted 36.9 percent of its lower-scoring applicants, and UNI admitted 79.6 percent.
In fall 2010, the UI admitted 13.6 percent of the applicants with low scores, ISU admitted 41.8 percent and UNI admitted 56.9 percent, according to regent documents.
Critics have expressed concern about the universities lowering their admissions standards to game a new funding system that is heavily weighted toward enrollment. But Board of Regents Executive Director Robert Donley said there are ways to making sure that doesn’t happen.
The regents track retention rates by students admitted with scores above and below 245. In 2012, 72 percent of the UI’s resident freshmen with lower scores came back a second year, compared with 85 percent of its higher-scoring students.
At Iowa State, 78 percent of its lower scoring resident freshmen returned for a second year, compared with 89 percent of its higher-scoring students.