What's Next: Iowa Wesleyan Students, Staff Grapple With Possible Closure
Iowa Wesleyan University may be closing its doors after 176 years due to "significant financial challenges". Without an immediate infusion of cash, this may be the small liberal arts college's last semester, leaving students, faculty and staff wondering: What’s next?
Administrators at the small liberal arts college in Mount Pleasant say Iowa Wesleyan has to raise $2.1 million in order to stay open for the spring 2019 semester, and $4.5 million to fund another school year.
The announcement last week came as a shock to many, at a time when the school's enrollment is increasing and retention rates are improving.
"It was very devastating," said first-year student Shelby Bride. "I did not see it coming at all."
"Every other university is an hour to an hour and a half away and I can't commute that far with having a kid in school and my husband work. This is to me my only option." - IWU Student Shelby Bride
About 700 students attend the college, about 20 percent of whom are international students. The school is valued for a long legacy of education in southeast Iowa and its tight-knit community feel.
Student Body President Austin Willis is supposed to graduate in May. He says he’s still hopeful that will happen, and he's telling other students to stay hopeful too.
"Even if the worst is to happen, there's our professors who are especially just working hard to figure out, if students can't make it here, where are they going to go next? What are they going to do? And I know our adminstrators are doing the same thing," Willis said.
Iowa Wesleyan was founded four years before Iowa became a state, and prides itself on being one of the oldest universities west of the Mississippi River. Today it's still one of the few four-year institutions in southeast Iowa, apart from the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield.
"If you are qualified you shouldn't be excluded from a higher education simply because you can't pay. What we need to make sure is that[...]we balance the financial profile of our students so we have a better balance of students who can pay and students who can't." - IWU President Steven Titus
Elementary education student Shelby Bride is pursuing her degree while raising a three year old with her husband. She says there aren't many other options for non-traditional students like her.
“This is the only place that I have to go with being able to…or having to commute. Because every other university is an hour to an hour and a half away and I can’t commute that far with having a kid in school and my husband work," Bride said. "This is to me my only option."
Iowa Wesleyan University President Steven Titus says welcoming students from diverse backgrounds is part of the school's mission. In recent years, that has meant supporting more students with greater financial needs. Titus says 69 percent of students are eligible for the federal government's Pell Grants, an indicator students come from a low income background. A 2017 analysis by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities found 33 to 34 percent of students at four year universities are typically Pell-eligible.
"If you are qualified you shouldn't be excluded from a higher education simply because you can't pay," Titus said. "What we need to make sure is that as we grow in enrollment, which we need to do and would continue to do, is that we balance the financial profile of our students so we have a better balance of students who can pay and students who can't."
Public tax documents show the school's net annual loss ranged from - $2.45 million in 2013 to - $4.57 million in 2015.
"You kind of have to put it all out there and do what you can[...]This is something Iowa Wesleyan taught me." - IWU Alumna Kaitlyn Dirth
Some of those who could be most disrupted by a potential closure are the school's international students who hail from some 30 countries. Titus says many of the students' visas were issued specifically for their education at Iowa Wesleyan.
"The majority of our students, their visas are tied to their enrollment here," Titus said. "We've got a very good international student staff that will do everything and anything that's required to take care of those students."
Willis says he's been fielding a lot of questions from the school's international students.
"They are definitely the most concerned," Willis said. "It's not as easy as someone who is from Illinois to leave a school in Iowa to go to another school in Illinois or in Iowa. It's someone who's put a lot on the line."
Titus is stressing that no final decision has been made, and the administration is working with private donors, city and county governments, and the USDA to come up with a solution. Iowa Wesleyan's Board of Trustees is slated to meet November 15th to talk about the future of the school.
In the meantime, students and alumni doing their part, taking to social media to share memories and to drum up support in grassroots fundraising campaigns.
Kaitlyn Dirth graduated from IWU's nursing program in 2016, and credits the school with preparing her to work in emergency rooms and ultimately pursue her doctor of nursing practice at Clarke University. She worries how the potential loss of the school could ripple throughout southeast Iowa's economy. IWU estimates the school's economic impact in southeast Iowa amounts to $55 million annually.
"If Iowa Wesleyan does close, my questions are what happens to Mount Pleasant as a community? It's a very small town and like I said, Iowa Wesleyan is very involved with the community," Dirth said.
Dirth took to Facebook to reach out to daytime televsion host and benefactor Ellen DeGeneres for financial support, a step she admits is something of "a long shot."
"But you kind of have to put it all out there and do what you can," Dirth said. "This is something Iowa Wesleyan taught me."