Podcast

On this edition of Iowa Press, Darrel Colson, president of Wartburg College, and Anne Harris, president of Grinnell College discuss the status of Iowa's private colleges and universities, including both challenges and opportunities on smaller campuses across the state.

Joining moderator David Yepsen at the Iowa Press table are Kay Henderson, news director for Radio Iowa, and Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for Lee Enterprises.

Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.

Recorded: 8/6/2021

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Iowa's higher education institutions have weathered economic and pandemic challenges over the past year. We sit down with Iowa private college Presidents Anne Harris of Grinnell and Darrel Colson of Wartburg on this edition of Iowa Press.

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Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com.

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For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating nearly 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, August 20 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

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Yepsen: In the world of higher education, challenges of enrollment, budgets and staffing are regular topics. But the past 18 months of a global pandemic have increased pressure on colleges and universities to maintain standards and keep people safe. To discuss the future of Iowa's private colleges we're joined by a pair of current presidents. Anne Harris is President at Grinnell College and Darrel Colson is President at Wartburg College in Waverly. Welcome to you both. Thank you for being with us. And I want our viewers to know that to accommodate schedules we're taping this program on August 6th. But thank you for being here.

Yepsen: Also joining us across the table, Kay Henderson is News Director at Radio Iowa and Erin Murphy is Des Moines Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises.

Henderson: Anne Harris, I'll start with you. As we tape this at the first of August, corporations have made decisions to require vaccinations among their employees. What plans are you making at Grinnell?

Harris: Yes, we are so excited to welcome our students back. We missed them so much last year. So, in anticipation of their arrival from 44 countries and 48 states we have decided to require vaccinations for our students. And they have been terrific, they have really led the way and we're ready to go this fall.

Henderson: What is the plan at Wartburg?

Colson: We are working hard to encourage all of our students to get vaccinated as quickly as possible. We've had some success and we actually are trying to approach this the way we approached the whole academic year last year. We instituted a program we called Knights Care where we try to persuade the students to engage our mission in a way that they took care of each other, took care of themselves and took care of each other. And so we're continuing that. What is exciting is that we have actually student groups who have organized themselves, a public health ambassador's group, a faith in the vaccine group who have organized themselves and they are out there on Snapchat and other social media encouraging their fellow students, they are organizing vaccination clinics. So we'll have quite a few vaccination clinics on campus that have been planned and organized by our students at the very beginning of school.

Murphy: So that addresses, and Darrel I'll start with you on this one, what is your level of concern with having students back on campus at a time when, again, as of early August when we recorded this, cases are increasing again, we've got the Delta variant out there spreading? I know the vaccinations, that is why they are so important. What is your level of concern with kind of the state of COVID right now bringing kids back onto campus?

Colson: Well, I'd say we're as concerned as we were toward the end of the last academic year. We are very vigilant. So we have a very complex and aggressive contact tracing program on campus, we have testing on campus through our Noah Clinic. And so we try to the best we can to identify cases early on, to do contact tracing, to quarantine students who have been identified as being close contacts of somebody infected and then we take really good care of the students who are in quarantine or isolation. We put them in some of our rental property and we take them meals and make sure that they have all that they need. So we will continue to be vigilant through the school year. As you know, even vaccinated people can become infected. So, it's rare but it happens and we'll continue to be really vigilant and take care of the students who become ill.

Murphy: Anne, same question to you. And I guess the requirement might ease your mind a little bit to that end?

Harris: A little bit, yes. It's the same thing, you get to really know your campus, every nook and cranny of it because you're thinking of spaces in such a different way when you've got a highly contagious virus like we're all dealing with. So masking and thinking about spaces and contact tracing and that looking out for each other. We were really happy to partner with the town of Grinnell in a Grin Well Together campaign is what we called it. It was really quite wonderful and to just think about looking out for each other because it really is, we call it public health but it's community health as well. So all those precautions are in place.

Yepsen: Moving past COVID just to the larger question of private colleges, Anne Harris I'll start with you. What is the condition of Iowa's private colleges?

Harris: That's a great question. The condition of Iowa's private colleges, I would say it is a network and I would say a community of private colleges with a long history in the state and I think a really beautiful tradition. It was part of what motivated me to move with my family here in 2019. I think it holds a very special place, those colleges hold a very special place in higher education, especially these small living and learning communities which are so deeply connected to how we create community, society, democracy. So to me they hold a very important place in our American society and I would say they are networked and they are thriving, doing quite well.

Yepsen: Darrel Colson, what is the condition in Iowa of private education?

Colson: One of the strengths of the system or the community, the network of private colleges is that we're all very, very different and I would say we all, if I were to just answer the question in one word I'd say the condition is good. And it is good because there is a high regard for education in the state. Like Anne, I came here 12 years ago partly because Iowa has such a terrific reputation, not only they are the three fine state universities and then the fine community college system, but this community, this association of private institutions is just wonderful. Our communities are very supportive. We are embedded, I am embedded, my school is embedded in Waverly and is very much a part of the community there. Hers is embedded in the community of Grinnell. They are just very much a part of the culture so I feel really optimistic about the future of these independent colleges.

Yepsen: We hear concerns about some of these universities having a hard time attracting students. There's competition for students generally. I guess it leads to the question -- and also a lot of emphasis less on liberal arts educations and more on science, technology and education. Anne Harris, is Iowa's system of private colleges and universities overbuilt?

Harris: I think we need to see what happens really in the next 18 years when we've got a big change in American demographics and we know some of the birth rates have gone down and so forth. So we'll have to see and prepare for those changes that are coming over the next 18 years. I think they serve a really, really powerful purpose and students and families are still seeking that purpose. And I think it is this idea of being these small campuses where when you live and learn together you're active, you're leading, you're creating community. So we still serve a purpose that is very much needed.

Yepsen: Darrel Colson, are they overbuilt for the mission they have? Is there a market for great books courses now?

Colson: There are so many interesting things to say here. One of the wonderful things about Iowa is that the taxpayers, the citizens of Iowa back in the 60's decided to support our system through the Iowa Tuition Grant, our network, enabling through the Iowa Tuition Grant needy students to be able to choose the college or university that would be best for them. So they could go to the University of Iowa if that was best for them, they could go to Grinnell, Wartburg if that was best for them. So what we've got in the state is a real attitude of support for the private institutions. Now, it is true that we're facing a demographic change. The way many of us have responded is by trying to attract students from outside the state to come and join our Iowa students in school. That is good for our schools and it's good for the state of Iowa because a large percentage of those young people once they graduate will stay here and make their lives here.

Yepsen: One of the reasons they created that tuition grant program was they had a whole bunch of us baby boomers coming into the market for higher education and they had to find a way to educate them so they created the tuition grant program. Well, now that the boomer population is moving on does it make sense for Iowa to keep continuing with a tuition grant program for these private schools?

Colson: Oh, absolutely. The principle behind it is absolutely golden. We want every high school student who graduates from high school in Iowa to have a choice and for that choice not to be restricted by their family's financial situation. So we want them to be able to choose a community college, a technical college, a university or a small college like ours.

Henderson: Anne Harris, what happens to private colleges, four year private colleges if federal policy makers decide every high school student is entitled to two free years of a community college education?

Harris: I think -- higher education has always shifted and changed. My father went to college on the GI Bill, for example, and that was a big moment in higher education of shifting and changing. So, if it increases access to higher education, we'll adapt. And something like the program that you described would do exactly that. So I think we would think much more about transfer students, much more about bringing students in for those last two years of college and things like that. We'd want to partner with that federal system, with that federal plan.

Henderson: Iowa has a good share of high schoolers who are already taking community college classes and matriculating and carrying those credits into college. How would you see having every high schooler having that opportunity as opposed to the subset who are now having that opportunity impact Wartburg?

Colson: Well, I think I agree with Anne there. If it's a matter of increasing access for high school kids to further their education, I think we'd be very supportive and we would figure out a way to adapt and to ease transfer opportunities. I'll tell you just as a point of fact, our large national association, NAICU, is very I guess encouraging, supportive of greater access. And what we have been advocating as an association, private institutions all across the country is let's address this problem by doubling the size of the Pell Grant. And what that would do is not only would it enable every student in Iowa to go to community college for two years for free but they could also make their own choice. So they could go to one of our schools, they could go to the University of Iowa. So that would be a wonderful opportunity, again, not only to support their education but to enhance their choice. And so that is what we, that would be our preference. But again, we're supportive of access.

Henderson: Let's talk about students who have already made a choice and they have college debt. What happens to institutions of higher learning in this country and specifically in Iowa if there is some erasing of student debt? What would happen to Wartburg? Would that impact you at all?

Colson: It wouldn't impact us. It might impact some of our graduates, right, some of our alums who are out there paying off their loans might realize a kind of a windfall if in fact the federal government decided to erase those loans. Those loans are owed to the U.S. government, not to Wartburg College.

Yepsen: Anne Harris, good idea?

Harris: The loan forgiveness I think to launch students out of college so that they are able to really fulfill everything that their education has given them and to clear that barrier, yes.

Yepsen: But you've heard the criticism, if you forgive the student loan debt a lot of that is held by students who went to expensive schools like yours, Harvard, and that amounts to a subsidy to upper class Americans. What do you say to that?

Harris: So, I think that is a good point. You'd want to be sure to devise a program that really benefits the students that need that removal of that barrier the very most. I do think of course financial aid and the business models of private colleges are quite complicated and it is really a partnership between families, the college, the federal government. It really all comes together. So I think we'd want to always focus on those who need the help the most.

Murphy: So the reason that the student debt forgiveness and the two years of free tuition conversations have gained steam in recent years is because of the high cost of college, the increasing cost of secondary college and that is for public as well as private universities. Anne, we'll start with you. What is Grinnell College doing to make college more accessible and more affordable to as many students as possible?

Harris: This was probably I would say maybe one of most valuable lessons from the pandemic was noticing what was happening in terms of families in need and thinking about that long economic tail of the pandemic. So we were able to do a full analysis and realized that we could put together a no loan initiative. So, loans are no longer a part of the financial aid packaging at Grinnell College. It is now possible to graduate from Grinnell without any debt. And that is really, we have focused exactly on that is what we could do to contribute to that student success after college.

Murphy: Darrel Colson, how about Wartburg? What steps is the university taking to make college more accessible?

Colson: We're really proud of the kinds of financial aid programs we've been able to put into place. And I can tell you with confidence although it looks as though posted prices go up each year, we have been really successful at generating generous gifts from our donors so that we have managed to keep on average the cost that comes out of a student's pocket for tuition roughly the same, in inflation-adjusted dollars, roughly the same for about the last 15 years. It hasn't been easy but it has required us to tighten our belts quite a bit, but it has also required us to be generous with our financial aid packages and I'm proud of that.

Henderson: A couple of months ago we had as guests two leaders of community college systems in Iowa and they both said that sports are sort of an entree for many students to their institutions. Sports require an expenditure of money. Is it worth the expense at Wartburg to have sports as an outlet for some of your students?

Colson: Well, absolutely. We have used sports like other co-curricular activities, musical ensembles, student government, student media. We view all of those as opportunities for students to engage and opportunities through which we're delivering on our mission. Our mission is to prepare students for lives of leadership and service in the communities they join. They learn valuable lessons about leadership and service whether they are on the soccer team or they are in the wind ensemble or they are the editor, sports editor on the student newspaper. So we think of those opportunities not as an expenditure that can be dispensed with, we think of that as part of the fuller education of the whole person.

Henderson: When people think of Iowa and Iowa State they do think of football teams and basketball teams. When people think of Grinnell they might not think of sports. But what is the role of sports on your campus?

Harris: It's absolutely crucial, I absolutely agree with Darrel, for the health and well-being of the students, for resilience as well and for, it's a very intense place when you're there living and learning together, you're taking all your courses. And so to me that balance that sports brings and many of our students are involved actually in a couple of different sports and so for us it is athletics and recreation, they are connected. And actually I'm looking forward to delving more into what that means, especially in terms of resilience and well-being.

Murphy: Des Moines Area Community College recently had a cyber-attack that they were forced to deal with. I'm curious to hear from each of you. Darrel, we'll start with you. Has Wartburg College had to up its cyber security game? Is this something that all colleges are concerned about these days?

Colson: Oh, absolutely, yes. All colleges, hospitals, yes. It's the same story because we have a lot of data that belongs to our students and belongs to their families. And so we're constantly raising the bar of security on campus. It is, I'm sure you've found this in your workplaces, it can be frustrating because we have to go through the dual documentation and certification and the cell phone thing and the codes and all that. But yes, it is absolutely critical that we try our best to protect that data.

Harris: It's the same thing and there are those adjustments. And it really is one of those moments where you realize we were all founded in the 19th century, we were far from the madding crowd, we were an idol far from the world and it's a very permeable space. And so coming to grips with that consistently is necessary.

Murphy: Without getting too technical, too into the weeds what does that look like? What does upgrading your systems look like to protect yourselves from things like that?

Harris: So, the dual authentication I think is probably the biggest adjustment that everyone has to make and then after that we prep all of our computers that our faculty and staff use and we have, we are deeply networked I would say. And then there is just a vigilance, there is a vigilance to where are the passwords and the cracks and so forth. So, quite an effort.

Henderson: So, the state universities argue that they have a role in Iowa's overall economy. Some of them have business parks attached to the university or research arms. What is Wartburg's role in Iowa?

Colson: Well, if you think economically we are an economic engine in Bremer County. We're one of the largest employers in the county. We probably generate about $100 million of economic activity, when the economists do those sort of calculations about how many times dollars turn over and so forth and so on. So not only are we preparing young people to go out and contribute to Iowa's culture and economy, we're also at the very moment doing that in our own community, hiring people, buying products, bringing students who buy shoes in town, all of those things are important.

Henderson: How many of your students stay in Iowa after graduation?

Colson: We have about 65 -- this is kind of an interesting statistic -- about 65% of our students come from Iowa to us, about 65% of our students remain in Iowa after they graduate and it's not the same 65%. There is some overlap but not the same. So we are doing quite a bit to import gifted, talented and highly educated young people into the state.

Henderson: What is the view of Grinnell College? How does it fit or benefit Iowa's economy?

Harris: I think that is the little told tale of small private colleges actually is the economic impact. So economic impact surveys I think are starting to happen, we need to refresh ours, but I know that when we did it, it was really striking, the millions of dollars that come into the local economy from yes, students, but also all the activities that a college will host whether it's conferences or events and so forth. So I think that is definitely there in terms of those four years that every student is there and then the alumni and their continuing contributions to the state of Iowa.

Colson: That's true.

Henderson: Do you have statistics on the number of students who graduate from Grinnell who stay in Iowa?

Harris: I don't have those ready at hand but I don't think it's going to be the same numbers as Wartburg's, right, because they come from so many different places. But I think that is absolutely, I've seen this coming to Iowa and then staying here and students from Iowa being the ones who leave. So there is that wonderful kind of transition that happens for our students.

Murphy: We hear a lot about that and the need to attract young people to Iowa, the population growth has been stagnant here for a number of years now. What is that from your standpoint, from where each of you sit? Anne, how challenging is that and how can we attract and keep young people here?

Harris: That is always the question, right, when we think about the intergenerational equity and the flow of what we're all trying to do here. So to me it is about what is possible here? And making Grinnell College a place of possibilities whether that is internships or research or classes or meeting people from all over the world. And I'm watching the state of Iowa do the same thing, some of the incubators, some of the entrepreneurship opportunities that are happening here. So we're part of the Greater Des Moines Partnership, which has been very exciting to be a part of and I think that connection between higher education and business, higher education and politics is really important for that vibrancy that you're speaking of that hey, I need to go there because things are possible there.

Murphy: Darrel, you're having some success. Two-thirds of your graduates are staying here. What is the secret ingredient?

Colson: I think a lot of students they become involved in the community, they might participate in internships or community-based research, they develop relationships and those relationships can then turn into contacts for job interviews after graduation.

Yepsen: Isn't there some benefit, we talk about economic development and keeping people here, but what about just having a liberal arts education? What is the commercial, if you will, for just having an educated group of citizens? Isn't there something to be said for that?

Harris: Yes.

Colson: Absolutely.

Harris: So, so much. This to me is the core of why I do what I do and why I believe in education so much. One of the guiding, guiding quotes of my life is John Dewey in 1916 saying, democracy must be born with each generation and education is its midwife. Now, leaving aside that complex metaphor, midwife free, it really does, it really does fulfill that incredible purpose of an informed citizenry and of students who have had four years with faculty and staff of researching, of deliberating, of collaborating. These are the fundamental practices of a democracy. There's one more, Danielle Allen is just this brilliant political scientist and she has said, democracy depends on trustful talk between strangers. And that is education.

Yepsen: Darrel Colson, same question to you. Why liberal arts?

Colson: You can go back to the original definition. Liberal arts liberate people from prejudice, from ignorance. And so we are very much, we're a Lutheran school so we think a lot about liberation, we think a lot about freeing people from the bonds that bind them. And so when a student studies that maybe he or she didn't know anything about in high school, a philosophy course, a religion course, a sociology course, they are learning so much that will, it may not be the kind of thing that you think of normally as connected to a job, but what they're learning are ways in which they can interpret the world, ways in which they can relate to other people.

Yepsen: Is it difficult -- we just have a minute left -- is it difficult to do that at a time when everybody is concerned about science and education and that job creation but also when higher education is under attack from a lot of quarters?

Colson: Well, it is sometimes difficult to talk about in kind of the abstract. But when you start talking to students and to their families about the skills that they can build when they're studying history or literature and the ways in which those skills can be powerful for them whatever they do later on in life, giving them the capacity to develop coherent thoughts and to persuade people and to argue well and to deliberate well, that is powerful stuff and I think every parent wants his or her child to have all the intellectual skills they can use to succeed in the world whether it is democratically or in the workplace.

Yepsen: Just a quick comment?

Harris: The pandemic taught us more than ever scientists need philosophers, philosophers need computer scientists, computer scientists need historians. So yes, more than ever.

Yepsen: And I need to watch the clock. Thank you both for being with us. We're out of time.

Harris: What a pleasure, thank you. What an honor, thank you.

Colson: Yeah, thanks for your time.

Yepsen: And we'll be back next week with another edition of Iowa Press at our regular times, 7:30 Friday night and Noon on Sunday. For all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.

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Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com.

Iowa Bankers Association
Associated General Contractors of Iowa