Letter from the Editor

Monday, October 2, 2006

Sell Iowa to collegiates

The Iowa Higher Education Summit held this week with representatives of most of the state's colleges is a spiffy idea. With the state's youth population static at best, the campuses are going to have to work harder to recruit more students, and from a wider area. Getting everybody on the same page instead of competing each other's brains out might be an advantage.

Among the ideas for attracting and keeping students in Iowa aired at this summit were:

* Bringing Iowa's business leaders together with college students more often, creating connections that would generate job opportunities for recent graduates.

* Emphasizing the unique opportunities for early success and leadership that young people have in Iowa.

* Communicating Iowa's welcoming nature and inherent charm to visitors or potential residents.

Oh, please. Pretty as it sounds, charm isn't going to have students from around the world knocking down the doors at Iowa and ISU - or at BVU or ICCC.

Nor is the promise of hanging out with the suits - at least not to a teenage high schooler. It's about the second semester of a junior year in college for many of us that the daunting reality of looming employability or lack of same begins to kick in the endorphines.

The task force's premises are fine so far, as far as they go. It knows we need to make Iowa more attractive to young people.

Unfortunately, many people around the country view Iowa as a state of cornfields and presidential candidates, if they know where it is at all, and if they haven't confused it with Idaho. Do some urbanites perhaps picture its professors to be something between Paul Harvey and Roy Clark of Hee-Haw, in bib overalls and a Pioneer seed cap? 'Fraid so.

Iowa's image needs an upgrade, and some real salesmanship. It needs all of the things that attract people anywhere:

The promise of good careers with good pay, above all else. Even if you lure in students, they won't stick around without the kind of opportunity to compete with the coasts.

Beauty - taking care of the state's air and water. Investing in parks, and treating campuses as the treasures they are. Nobody wants to matriculate in a prison camp.

Things to do - who wants to work hard in class all week and then have to commute home every weekend to blow off a little steam? You need concerts, sports, art, shopping, restaurants, coffee houses, dancing, better theaters, fitness centers, fun events, and yes, party bars - though the students who put that last one at the top of their list may not last the four years of college. "Welcoming nature" is great, but it takes more than that to get young people here or to hold them long enough for them to learn to appreciate that nature. A lot of native Iowans had to grow up, leave it, experience a few years elsewhere and begin their own families before they realized that they wanted to get back to that. If we haven't communicated it to our own children, how are we going to get kids in Oregon or Georgia to grasp the Iowa mystique?

Academics - where is that on the list? Quality still matters, and the Iowa universities and colleges compete well there, but can always look to be more topical, more cutting edge, even better at hiring teaching talent and at placement. And what we have, we have to sell like crazy - more learning bang for your buck, skippy.

Intangibles - here it gets tricky, because everyone is looking for something a little different, aren't they? At the heart of it, I suppose, is that hard-to-describe feeling of belonging. A place where you will fit in, and stand out. A place where people get you. A place you will be safe and respected, even if you are a little different than most there. A place with decent part-time jobs for you. A place you feel like you can join stuff and try new things, and not just skate through those years hidden away in a grungy dorm room. If a campus and a community can't offer that whatever-it-is feeling up, it's going to be darn hard to convince a kid to come here, and harder to give them a full and successful experience for four or more years in that new environment if they do come. And yes, while we do need a goal to attract more students for the financial sake of the U's, the success of the students once they arrive must be at least an equal goal.

Now, this summit had one other idea of note. If not the most important, it certainly is the most immediate, I think:

* Developing sensible incentives that can help make Iowa more attractive to outsiders.

Ca-ching. We have a winner. Nobody's going anywhere if they don't feel they can afford it without selling a kidney. They're bright young people, they comparison shop (and if not, Mom and Dad sure will.) They won't be fooled by bargain-basement tuition jacked up with loads of students fees. And they might not buy that argument that "tuition kinda looks high, but just about everybody will probably get some financial aid somewhere."

I'm told that over the past five years, the average tuition at a public university has gone up by more than 50 percent. Ouch - what is this, an educational gas pump? We should be ticked off.

Iowa universities traditionally charged a considerably higher tuition for students from other states than from Iowa. If we now need students, we will have to consider supply and demand.

I'm not suggesting the extreme - California for decades offered basically free college tuition to all living in the state who met college entrance requirements, which helped infuse that state with bright young people and build incredible technical industries.

I also recall Gov. Vilsack was one of several leaders to propose an American Dream Initiative, which was to offer grants to states based on the number of students they could get into college and graduate, in return for states agreeing to maintain spending levels for higher education and not jack up tuition rates beyond the rate of inflation - and a $3,000 College Tuition Tax Credit.

It's good to be talking about this. But we can't be naive. Our charm is only going to get us so far. As a state and a nation, we are going to have to invest some bucks in our rep too.

* Dana Larsen is the editor of the Storm Lake Pilot-Tribune. Reach him at dlarsen@stormlakepilottribune.com