Courtesy of Iowa Wesleyan University
Two Iowa institutions announced Tuesday they will form a public-private alliance that will encourage student transfer and aim to boost enrollment at both institutions.
Iowa Wesleyan University, a private liberal arts institution in Mount Pleasant, and Southeastern Community College, a two-year public college in West Burlington, will form the Southeast Iowa Higher Education Alliance. The alliance will operate as an independent nonprofit.
The two institutions will continue to operate independently and maintain their own boards, leadership, employees and programming. Presidents at both hope the alliance will create an easy transfer path from Southeastern to Wesleyan, which are only a five-minute walk apart.
“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,’” Christine Plunkett, president of Iowa Wesleyan, said during an online press conference Tuesday.
The colleges will share some revenues, but exactly what money will be changing hands -- and how much -- is still being worked out, Plunkett said. Southeastern Community College has committed to providing some scholarship money for students who transfer to Iowa Wesleyan to complete their bachelor’s degrees. Iowa Wesleyan will fund the administrative budget for the alliance.
The alliance will be governed by a six-member board that includes a member from each institution’s board, Plunkett, Southeastern president Michael Ash and two additional members. Each participating institution will name one of the additional members.
A student activities coordinator position is currently open at both institutions, and they are considering hiring a single person to fill the role for both campuses. The alliance will likely result in additional hires, as well as some job eliminations at Wesleyan, Plunkett said.
“We’ve had several positions that will be probably eliminated over the next year,” she said. “Those individuals have been given 12 months' advanced notice that there will be a phasing out of those roles.”
Southeastern doesn’t anticipate any major changes to staffing, Ash said.
Increasing enrollment at both colleges is one of the alliance’s major goals. Southeastern’s enrollment has declined steadily over the past decade, dropping from nearly 2,700 full-time undergraduate students in 2010 to 1,775 in 2018.
Iowa Wesleyan’s enrollment has slowly increased over the past several years. This fall, the university tallied 729 students, its highest head count since 2011.
But the university hasn’t recovered transfer student enrollment from past heights. In 2010, the college enrolled more than 300 transfer students, Plunkett said. Transfer enrollment plummeted after the university joined NCAA Division III in 2011 and has languished since.
“Our enrollment of transfer students dropped off significantly because of our no longer offering athletic scholarships,” Plunkett said. The university plans to leave the NCAA and rejoin the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics this summer, and it has already seen a significant uptick in interest from transfer students as a result. The NAIA is a collegiate athletic conference for small colleges, and it allows participating colleges to offer athletics scholarships regardless of division.
Interest in Partnership Models
Iowa Wesleyan's and Southeastern's new alliance is not the first partnership between a private university and public institutions in Iowa. Clarke University announced last year that it would partner with all of the state’s community colleges to create transfer pathways.
Plunkett said The Registry, an organization that helps place interim presidents and college administrators, and its consulting arm suggested Wesleyan's and Southeastern's alliance model to several other small colleges that have been looking to merge.
The model is similar to what Registry Advisory Services calls a mutual growth federation, said Bryan Carlson, president of The Registry. He confirmed that the company had suggested the model to several groups of colleges as a merger alternative.
“All-out mergers can prove to be very, very difficult, and almost impossible,” Carlson said. “The advantage of a mutual growth federation at the outset is that it makes it a lot easier to move forward incrementally, and it also doesn’t ultimately preclude at a full-blown merger.”
College merger and acquisition announcements often face pushback from employees, students and alumni. They also require multistep approvals from state governing bodies and institutional accrediting agencies. Mutual growth federations sidestep the blowback and bureaucracy and still allow colleges to share students, funding, resources and employees.
If the involved institutions later decide to formalize their alliance into one institution, Carlson suggests forming a new institution to preside over the participating colleges. In Wesleyan and Southeastern’s case, the colleges have already created a nonprofit to oversee the alliance, which could one day take on greater control of the institutions, he said.
He pointed to the University of Oxford, in Britain, as an example.
“There’s 45 different colleges at Oxford, and those colleges are historical entities in themselves,” he said. But they share and benefit from the reputation of the University of Oxford.
Rather than encouraging merger rumors, Carlson noted that he thinks Iowa Wesleyan and Southeastern should remain independent.
“My hunch is that this shouldn’t become an all-out merger, because you’ve got different breeds of institution,” Carlson said. “The optimum course in this particular case might be just to concentrate on perfecting the model and seizing more and more collaborative opportunities over time.”
Nancy Zimpher, the former chancellor of the State University of New York system and an advocate of intercollege cooperation, applauded the private-public effort to create an easy transfer system.
“It is important that both public and private institutions do everything they can to enable student success and degree completion. And seamless transfer is extremely important to that success,” Zimpher said in an email.
But she emphasized the importance of maintaining the widespread access to education that community colleges offer.
“We don’t want to blur the lines between two- and four-year campuses such that access -- a hallmark of community colleges -- gets lost in the pursuit of direct admission to a four-year experience,” she wrote.