Leath talks about enrollment growth, new national standards for universities on radio program

Local implications of a possible federal government shutdown, spiraling upward enrollment and the challenges it creates, more meaningful national standards for universities and diversity on campus were among the topics President Steven Leath addressed during a 20-minute interview on Iowa Public Radio earlier this week. Leath was a guest on IPR's River to River Sept. 30.

The interview is available in the River to River archives. Following are a few excerpts from Leath's interview with host Ben Kieffer:

On the effect of a federal shutdown on prospective Iowa State students:

We don't know how this will affect our Pell grants, which fund our most needy students, and some of our student loan programs. We worry about the people who need help the most to get a public education, being able to find it. So, that's hugely problematic.

The other part of this is, we are a huge research university and we have many, many graduate students who contribute to solving many of the problems our society faces, improving the quality of life and making us competitive with other countries in terms of innovative new ideas and products. Much of the graduate student support at our university comes from federal grants and federal support. So, long term, it'd make it much harder for us to make good on our promise to reduce student debt. We really need the federal government as a partner in this effort.

On the specific challenges of serving a record-sized student body:

The first thing for student environment needs this year turned out to be student housing. We do consider that to be a huge challenge with the number of students we have here, making sure we have high-quality places for them to live and eat.

Second would be classroom space, especially laboratory space. Our laboratories -- for example, our biology laboratories -- are open until 10 at night during the week to accommodate our growth. So we need an adequate number of classrooms but very high-quality classrooms.

Another big one would come down to faculty. Our student body has grown nearly 25 percent over the last 10 years and our faculty has grown about 8 percent. To keep that really high-quality education and to keep a reasonable burden on our faculty who have been asked to do more and more with less, we need to hire more faculty, so we're aggressively doing that.

Our faculty and staff get it. They want to do a tremendous job for the students and the state. They've been putting in more and more time, and more and more effort, but there's a limit to how much we should ask any employee to do. And that's one of the reasons we're pushing to get more help.

On Iowa State's success with recruiting international students (11 percent of this fall's student body):

One, they want to feel comfortable where they go, and we have a very welcoming atmosphere with faculty and staff that care. At the undergraduate level, our learning communities make them feel at home because they have a core peer group that supports them as soon as they get here.

But interestingly, despite all we hear in the popular press of online distance education and new ways of teaching, there's still tremendous interest among young people in being at an institution where there's lots of other students living on campus and doing things side by side. The fact they can come to Iowa State and get all the modern learning experiences, but at the same time, live in a large campus community with the look and feel of a traditional campus makes it ideal for many students.

On President Barack Obama's proposal in August to use student outcomes (debt levels, on-time graduation rates, performance in the workplace) in national ratings of universities:

We're fairly optimistic that if standards are put in place, that Iowa State will look even better. If you think about the things the president emphasized: making college affordable, we're the least expensive of all the institutions in our peer group. If you look at outcomes, 94 percent of our students are getting jobs within six months of graduation. If you look at access, we have a regents index for application that's blind from socioeconomic standards and other standards. So, if a student does well in school, he or she can come to Iowa State. The advantage of this, in addition, is that we take very, very bright, capable students – National Merit Scholars and others – but it also gives the average student a chance to come to Iowa State and be molded into someone that can really contribute to society and the workforce. I think if we go with some types of national standards and they're meaningful, Iowa State will look even better and better.