Iowa Wesleyan University is forming a new partnership with Southeastern Community College, which officials say will help both schools boost enrollment and share certain expenses.
Under a new organization called the Southeast Iowa Higher Education Alliance or SIHEA, the institutions will remain separate but will reshape degree pathways and collaborate on recruitment efforts to encourage more students to start and finish their degrees at the schools.
The alliance is a major development for the 179-year-old university, which just two years ago was on the brink of closure due to a lack of sustainable funding. IWU was founded before Iowa became a state and is one of the oldest universities west of the Mississippi River.
“From our perspective, although one of the benefits is that we remain two distinct and individual institutions, we also see ourselves under this alliance as almost a single campus,” IWU President Chris Plunkett said. “We’ve talked a lot about using language with the students that will say, ‘students at SCC can think about coming to the other campus over at Iowa Wesleyan to pursue their bachelor’s degree’.”
As part of the SIHEA partnership, SCC plans to expand efforts to recruit high school students and retain its current students. Once they enroll, the school will encourage students to finish their degree and go on to earn a bachelor’s or master’s at IWU and provide them scholarships and advising in order to do so.
SIHEA will have some of its own staff and be overseen by a board made up of members of each of the schools’ boards, who will help coordinate shared marketing, recruiting and fundraising efforts.
“We believe that this is going to give opportunity to draw students here who might not have been considering SCC, or for that matter Wesleyan. And now here’s an opportunity for them to get two years with SCC at a greatly reduced cost,” said SCC President Michael Ash, who will serve as the chancellor of SIHEA.
Ash says that factoring in the “reduced cost” for those first two years, students who do go on to earn their four year degree at IWU will be able to do so at a “significantly less amount of dollars."
Speaking with reporters Tuesday, Ash and Plunkett heralded the alliance as an "innovative" public-private partnership that could serve as a model for other institutions, at a time when colleges and universities across the nation are struggling to keep their doors open due to financial pressures that predate the coronavirus crisis.
The partnership comes two years after IWU warned a lack of funding could force the school to close within a matter of weeks. In November of 2018, administrators announced the financial pressure could make that semester the school's last. Private donations and a $21 million dollar loan from the USDA Rural Development program have helped stabilize the school’s finances since then.
In January of 2020, a previous potential partnership with Saint Leo University in Florida was called off due to a number of factors, including concerns over IWU's outstanding debt, according to reporting by the Cedar Rapids Gazette.
Now the presidents say their schools are approaching the partnership from a position of growth, arguing the partnership will help their institutions continue growing in the future within a higher education environment that is rapidly changing. Plunkett says COVID-19 and other health, economic and political factors are reshaping what students want.
“The landscape is changing probably permanently and students now are looking for so many different options in terms of how they pursue their education,” said Plunkett. “For Iowa Wesleyan, this is no longer about rescuing an institution that’s looking for strengthening its enrollment. It’s really about serving that economic outlook.”
Beyond boosts to enrollment and more stability for the institutions, Plunkett and Ash say the alliance will also help fuel economic development efforts throughout southeast Iowa and hopefully encourage a new generation of Iowans to put down roots in that part of the state.