Iowa high school grad numbers are robust; inclination to attend college less so

While the state of Iowa isn't facing a dearth of high school graduates -- the "enrollment cliff" predicted by Carleton College's Nathan Grawe in his 2018 Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education -- its graduates are showing less interest or less ability to attend college, the state Board of Regents heard at its Nov. 10 meeting.

Regent decisions

Read more about the state Board of Regents' November meeting.

Jason Pontius, associate chief academic officer on the board staff, presented a fall enrollment summary and offered board members some insight on trends. The number of Iowa public high school graduates actually increased about 3% in the last decade, and is projected to hold steady through the end of the decade. That isn't the case in every state, he noted.

Making enrollment predictions requires a few assumptions, Pontius said, and a key assumption is that the rate of college attendance for high school students will remain the same. Unfortunately in Iowa, that rate has been dropping since before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Iowa public high school graduates: How many enroll in college


Class of 2012

Class of 2015

Class of 2018

Class of 2020

Iowa public high school graduates





Enrolled in college within one year of graduation





Percent enrolled





*First fall of COVID-19 pandemic
Source: Iowa Statewide Longitudinal Data System


Perceived importance

Many data sets support the link between a college degree and positive outcomes such as higher salaries, lower unemployment and poverty rates, and less reliance on programs such as Medicaid and food stamps, but Americans' perception of the importance of a college degree is declining. Pontius cited a pre-pandemic Gallup Poll that asked this question. In 2013, 70% of respondents said a college education is "very important;" in 2019, 51% said it's very important.

Of the top 50 jobs on Iowa Workforce Development's "Hot Jobs" list, Pontius said 96% require a bachelor's degree or more. The "hot jobs" reflect both demand in the state and capacity to provide a comfortable wage, he said.

"So we have a disconnect in Iowa, too," Pontius said. "At a time when we need more people getting some kind of post-secondary education, we're seeing less trust in higher education and less interest. These are some of the headwinds we face as we make decisions about how to grow going forward."

Intent vs. behavior

Pontius said "intent" data -- the plans graduating high school students share -- doesn't equate to enrollment behavior exactly, but can help predict enrollment trends. Rising wages and the relative ease of finding a job that pays $15/hour helped spur a growing interest in employment, he said. Data from the Iowa Department of Education indicates 17% of the state's class of 2023 plans to get a job after graduation next spring.

From 2012 to 2019, Iowa's spring public high school graduates who said they intended to attend college dropped 4 percentage points (from 80.8% to 76.7%); the number who actually enrolled in college within a year declined nearly 5 percentage points (69.2% down to 64.3%). Curiously, over the same time the number of high school graduates who had taken the ACT rose by 3.5 percentage points and those who had taken at least one college-level course rose by 6.5 percentage points.


Iowa public high school graduates: Post-graduation plans


Class of 2012

Class of 2015

Class of 2018

Class of 2021

Community college





Public 4-year





Private 4-year





Other schooling




















Other plans










Source: Iowa Statewide Longitudinal Data System


Changing demographics

Active recruiting

The board staff will lead a pilot project in the spring designed to alert high school juniors who would qualify for admission to a regent university when they apply. The board's Regent Admission Index provides a transparent tool for Iowa high school students to assess their automatic admission. The pilot is modeled after programs in other states and will involve eastern Iowa school districts served by the Mississippi Bend Area Education Agency, said chief academic officer Rachel Boon. Staff are working with school district superintendents and high school counselors now to set up communications structures and other parameters.

"We want the message to get through to all qualified students that they're on track for college," she said.

Pontius suggested changes to Iowa's population also could be impacting college enrollment. First, he looked at socioeconomics. In the last decade, the spread between high school students who do and don't qualify for free or reduced price lunch and who attend college has remained consistent, roughly 30 percentage points (in 2018, 47.7% vs. 78.5% enrollment rates, for example). What has changed is that more students qualify for free or reduced price lunches, from about 38% in 2011-12 to 45% in 2018-19, meaning more students come from the population with the lower college-attendance rate.

Similarly, a college enrollment gap exists in Iowa between high school graduates who are and are not an ethnic or racial minority. For the last 10 years, that difference has consistently remained around 12 percentage points. With Iowa becoming a more ethnically diverse state -- 14% of the high school class of 2012 vs. almost 21% of the class of 2019 -- again there are more members in a student population less likely to attend college.

Pontius also noted Iowa's female high school graduates are more likely to attend college than their male classmates. Applying all three variables -- gender, ethnicity, socioeconomics -- the student group least likely to attend college (roughly 1 in 3) is white males who qualify for free or reduced price lunch.

Other factors in declining enrollment

Pontius said other contributing factors to the overall enrollment decline among the regent universities are gains in the four-year graduation rate and fewer international students, especially from China. In fall 2016, Iowa State enrolled 1,711 students from China; this fall, that number was 476.

Iowa State's current four-year graduation rate is 55%, 14 points higher than the national average. The average time for ISU students to earn a bachelor's degree has decreased to 4.18 years, and more than 10% of students graduate within 3.5 years.