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At University of Iowa, recruitment success has its perils

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Iowa City, Iowa – Like an airline overselling a flight, the University of Iowa extended admission this year to several thousand more applicants than it could accommodate on campus in this fall’s freshman class.

While nearly every university overbooks each year, relying on sophisticated algorithms that predict just how many admitted students will probably go elsewhere, Iowa officials were surprised to learn this spring how far off they were in their math. This fall’s freshman class is likely to have over 400 more students than last year’s, an unintended increase of about 10 percent, for a total of just more than 4,500.

Though the university considers this a happy accident – much of the growth has come from outside Iowa, including from schools as far away as China and India, whose graduates typically pay triple the tuition of state residents – the looming flood of new students has left the university scrambling to figure out where they will sleep and how to fit them into some of the most popular courses.

In anticipation of the students’ arrival, the university has been securing local apartment buildings and temporarily converting open dormitory lounges into private spaces that can accommodate as many as eight beds.

"It’s good-bad," said Tom Rocklin, interim vice president for student services, who oversees much of student life outside the classroom. He described a high-level meeting in May where the enrollment figures were disclosed as "emergency in tone – not like our flood emergency, but more ‘We have to act now."’

"You want them here," Rocklin added. "But we have to house these students. We have to ensure they have the classes they need."

That Iowa has emerged as one of the nation’s more popular public universities this year is a function, in part, of its aggressive marketing in other states and abroad. Its tuition for out-of-state students – $23,700 this year – also makes it more affordable than many private colleges, particularly those that have scaled back scholarship offers in an unstable economy.

The University of Minnesota, in Minneapolis, the only Big 10 institution with a lower out-of-state tuition than Iowa’s, also saw a jump in out-of-state applicants this year. While Minnesota was more accurate than Iowa in predicting the size of its freshman class this fall, it overshot its target in 2006 by 230 students – another reminder that admissions often entails as much art as science, particularly in this economic climate.

Wayne Sigler, the longtime director of admissions at Minnesota, likens the task of estimating the right number of admission offers to extend, knowing that many will be declined, to that of a captain’s steering a large ship.

"The science of it, our projection models, are really helpful so we can get in sight of land," Sigler said. "Once we reach a critical point, we start inching up to the dock.

"We don’t want to come in too low, because that has severe budget implications," he added. "On the other hand, we don’t want to come in too high because it impacts course availability and spaces in the dorms."

Iowa definitely came in high this year – the equivalent of crashing that boat into the pier. While Iowa had intended to increase the size of its freshman class by about 500 – largely as a way to raise tuition revenue – its plan was to do so by about 100 students a year. In effect, it met its five-year projection in the first year.

To increase diversity at the university, and to offset state budget cuts with more tuition revenue, Iowa admissions officials traveled this year to China, South Korea and India in search of potential applicants.

In recent years, more American universities have drawn full-paying students, many interested in business and engineering, from these countries.

What Iowa did not count on was that so many of the international students who applied for this fall’s freshman class (2,200, an increase of 15 percent over last year) would wind up coming (nearly 430 as of now, an increase of 68 percent over last year.) Almost 350 incoming students are from China alone.

Overall, one of every 10 members of this year’s freshman class at Iowa will hail from outside the United States.

"I want to attend the business college and am interested in marketing," a Chinese freshman, Danyang Xu, 18, said in an e-mail from her home in Zhejiang province.

"I am looking forward to parties, proms and having a spare time job," said Xu, who has friends attending Cornell, Rice and the University of Pittsburgh.

Led by Michael Barron, who has long served as Iowa’s assistant provost for enrollment management and director of admissions, the university also had a better batting average than it expected in attracting students from cities like Atlanta, Denver and Nashville.

While Iowa had few applicants from those cities in the past, it singled them out this year based on customized data it bought from the College Board. That data used the profile of a typical out-of-state student enrolled at Iowa – including test scores and family income – to identify high schools that graduated those with similar backgrounds.

In searching for students in new places, Iowa found that its past projection models were of limited use. It is hard for a university to predict who might come from Louisville – to say nothing of Beijing – if it has never recruited there. Further muddying those enrollment formulas is that Iowa, unlike many private colleges, uses rolling admissions, meaning a student who might be admitted as early as Oct. 1 does not have to give an answer until May 1, a particularly long interval for a university trying to set its freshman class.

Meanwhile, though the number of students graduating from Iowa public high schools this spring declined slightly, nearly 200 more students from the state applied to the University of Iowa this year compared with 2009. (The state requires that all those who meet a certain academic threshold be offered automatic admission.)

Still, in a sign of how the composition of the student body is shifting, Iowa residents will, for the first time this fall, make up a minority of the freshman class – 45 percent.

The university does not expect to have much trouble adding sections to accommodate the incoming freshmen in popular first-year courses like Rhetoric, which is essentially English 101. Housing all the incoming students, though, has been the biggest challenge. With each freshman entitled to campus housing, several hundred students transferring from community and other colleges will most likely be given beds in newly commissioned, off-campus apartments or renovated dorm lounges.

The college expects anyone in the lounges, where the rent will be $10 a day, to be moved within a few weeks after the start of school, as some freshmen choose to move off campus.

Jacob Berte, 20, who is transferring to Iowa from Iowa Central Community College, in Fort Dodge, said he had already arranged to live in an apartment with two friends from high school. "That sounds like too many people in one room," he said of the lounges.

And yet, as he prepares to study accounting and root for the Hawkeyes, Berte said he welcomed being on a campus with more students than anticipated.

"It feels like I’m going to be part of something exciting," he said.


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