MT. PLEASANT — After a hard-fought battle to keep the doors open, Iowa Wesleyan University, in Mt. Pleasant, is gearing up for another year and moving forward with a partnership with Saint Leo University.
In November 2018, Iowa Wesleyan (IW) announced they were struggling to stay open through December 2019, citing financial difficulties. They sent out 242 requests for proposals (RFPs) to other universities and organizations and created a New Directions Team to pursue partnerships. They received 13 responses, four of which were seriously considered by the New Directions Team, then-President Steve Titus said.
The university chose to partner with Saint Leo University, located in St. Leo, Florida. The partnership was expected to be signed in June 2019 but has not occurred as of August 2019.
Titus retired on July 31, 2019, and Christine Plunkett became the 30th president and first female president of the institution. Plunkett is originally from Vermont and came to IW in 2015 to be the interim chief financial officer of the university. What was supposed to be a one-year placement turned into four years and after Titus announced his plans, Plunkett was asked to fill his position.
“It just fits a pattern of places that I have been in my career, which are generally institutions that are small, that are very community focused (and) that are often serving students who are first generation college students. It’s just a niche that I love,” she said.
Last year, IW boasted their largest class in more than 40 years with 635 students. Plunkett said the official census on student count will not take place until 10 days after the school year starts, but they are looking to exceed those numbers and could have anywhere between 650-675 students. That number includes students enrolled in the dual credit high school program.
Their international program has seen high retention rates as well. Last year there were 117 in the program and so far this year 110. The number is expected to rise by 20 students as they continue to apply and work through receiving visas in order to come to school.
“We are looking great,” she said. “Our head count has exceeded last years and we’re not finished yet. Many small institutions, as you probably know, keep enrolling right up until the last minute.”
Last year, the increased enrollment caused a problem with housing as the university ran out of available options for students and had to quickly adapt last minute. This year they came prepared for an increased student population and have purchased additional options.
“Since the early fall last year, we’ve added three separate housing options for students,” Plunkett said, explaining Tom and Linda Juckette Hall was gifted to them and has capacity to house up to 50 students and is being used currently for 25-30 students. The university is also leasing three units, an apartment house, a duplex and a simplex, for student housing. “We’ve probably added somewhere between 75 and 100 beds since last year. And even though enrollment still is growing, we will be fine for this year.”
Plunkett said in a way, running out of housing is a good problem to have and adding these new housing options will be key for retention, she feels. Being able to give students options that are not dorm rooms and more independence from traditional campus life, she said, is helpful.
The retention rate at IW has slowly increased, despite their economic woes the past few years. Plunkett said the retention rate was below 50 percent for many years and for the last three has ranged from the mid 50s to the mid 70s.
“I think that the impact we anticipated did not occur. Really, it feels like any good, solid, enrollment year,” she said.
Students have yet to move in, but for the most part, Plunkett said she has not heard any concern from students or parents about the financial concerns IW faced last year when they nearly had to close the doors midsemester.
Faculty and staff have expressed concern that the partnership with Saint Leo University has yet to be signed, but Plunkett said it is a work in progress the board is continuing to work on daily.
“Honestly, we know that the May date was a stretch. We’re talking about partnership, merger, complex financial transaction, consolidation of programs, all kinds of things, and I think the deeper you get into that kind of arrangement, the more details come out that need to be addressed,” she said.
Summer, also, proved to be a hiccup as the business leads at Saint Leo Univeristy wanted to make sure the new IW president, Plunkett, was on board with this merger. She said conversations began to slow during summer due to people being on vacation and taking time away from work as well, but the partnership still is on track and being worked through with lawyers.
The partnership could come in pieces, such as the online programs merging before the physical campuses, because it is a faster process with paperwork. A timeline has not been ironed out just yet because each school wants to take their time to make sure they each are taken care of in a legal sense.
Saint Leo University has expressed they are inclined to let IW keep their identity as Iowa Wesleyan, but could in the future become ‘Iowa Wesleyan University, a campus of Saint Leo,’ for example. The partnership will allow them to offer more programs and activities to students, as well. For example, Saint Leo has a robust online degree program and IW has a nursing program that Saint Leo does not offer.
Looking forward into the future, Plunkett said she feels IW has tremendous hope for the future of the university in Mt. Pleasant.
“I have a lot of confidence in the institution, that regardless of the status of the partnership, I think we have a lot of options before us and we are going to move ahead one way or another,” she said.