Printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Sept. 23, 2009
Our View - Focus on Iowans while attracting other students
"Have you seen the size of that recreation center that they are building on the river?" said Tom Mortenson when we asked him if he really thought the University of Iowa was the "Gated Community" described in the title of the talk he will give at noon today in the Jones Commons of the UI Lindquist Center.
"I think that shows they've moved up to country club status," he said.
Mortenson, a scholar with The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, said he is using those phrases as "pejorative and critical terms" that he hopes will catch the attention of UI officials and get them to "think about what they are doing."
Specifically, Mortenson is worried at how only little more than half of the freshmen at Iowa are in-state students. That means nearly half of the class are coming to the school from outside the state. That means, he said, the university is spending more and more of its time focusing on how to make Iowa an attractive "destination university" for out-of-state students whose middle-class or wealthy families are willing to pay Iowa's out-of-state tuition rates.
That means, Mortenson goes on, that the university is spending more time appealing to the leisure-driven mindset of these relatively well-to-do, out-of-state students and not enough time focusing on the low-income Iowa students who are looking to their state universities to provide them with opportunities for social mobility.
And Mortenson said his data shows students from wealthier families spend less time studying and more time in sports and leisure activities than do students from low-income families.
"The lower income students have more of a 'you better study your butt off' attitude," he said.
Mortenson also said the trend is likely to continue because, as Iowa lawmakers cut back in the state support of the university, UI officials have a responsibility to look for ways to make up for that lost revenue.
"If you extrapolate the trends," Mortenson said, "you have to ask when we are going to change the name of the university to the University of Illinois at Iowa City."
And it's not enough for the university to improve its relationship with community colleges. Mortenson places a high value on the students having that experience moving away from home to attend school.
"It's an emergence into the culture of learning," Mortenson said.
Even when we pointed out that those years are likewise an "emergence into the culture of drinking," Mortenson said that university's current focus on improving student's leisure activities isn't helping the drinking situation either. If anything, Iowa City's downtown becoming "one big bar" is only serving to attract students who are more interested in a college lifestyle than a college education.
To counter this trend, Mortenson said he wants to see Iowa's public universities double or triple the number of students from low-income families who qualify for need-based Pell Grants.
"If they don't, they are not doing anything to broaden the educational opportunities for Iowans," Mortenson said. "Instead, they are only continuing to serve students from inherent privilege."
Mortenson described himself as "flaky" and a "dinosaur," but we think the issues he raises need to be part of the discussion about the future of higher education in Iowa.
"Even if he's wrong, it will spark good conversation," said David Bills, associate dean of the UI College of Education. "We need to be thinking about these things."