Embracing a wide reach of students, and drawing them from many geographic locations, socioeconomic statuses, ethnic backgrounds and levels of college preparation, this university is making a serious impression on students.
Choosing a college for undergraduate studies is a significant life decision. The University of Dubuque emphasizes that the students themselves are the ones who make the difference when it comes to the college experience.
“I will talk with prospective students during visit days or individual meetings, and what I tell them is the most important part of the University of Dubuque is them,” says Bob Broshous, vice president of enrollment management and dean of admission. “We’re looking much deeper than a student’s test scores. We’re looking at things like their character and grit. We’re looking for students who are willing to take the road less traveled.”
The university was founded in 1852 by the Rev. Adrian Van Vliet, a pastor of the First German Presbyterian Church of Dubuque. Started in the church basement, the “Van Vliet School” sought to provide religious education to prospective ministers who could serve the growing population of German immigrants, like Van Vliet, who were arriving in the Midwest.
The school grew and evolved over many decades, and in 1986, what had been a Presbyterian seminary became a full undergraduate college.
Over the decades, the university has continued to evolve with its students and their expectations.
“We focus on the liberal arts, but we really prepare students for professional work when they graduate,” says Broshous. “All of our academic majors are designed to result in a student getting work or going on to a professional school.”
The university has strong programs in business communication, technology, science and education. A unique program is aviation, which includes flight training. The school has about 25 airplanes in its fleet.
“We have about 200 students who are flying airplanes and helicopters here all the time,” says Broshous. “We’re the only four-year college in Iowa that has aviation. That is a unique program that the University of Dubuque has that most small private universities or colleges do not.”
The university has a long history of educating students, but that heritage was in trouble by the mid-1990s, when it was on the verge of closing. In 1998, things came to a head. Retention rates had dropped to about 39%, and full-time enrollment was around 600 students.
The university was faced with two options: close or make radical changes.
“Some academic areas were successful, but many were not,” recalls Tom Hogan, senior associate vice president for enrollment – university relations. “We were not providing students with the kind of educational and co-curricular experience they wanted or deserved.”
At the time, the university had 38 majors, 15 of which accounted for 92% of its enrollment. Just 8% of students were enrolled in the other 23 majors.
“What was created was the Plan for Transformation,” Hogan says. The most significant part of the plan called for the elimination of 23 majors. “We focused on what we were doing well with the plan to, over time, bring many, if not all of them, back online newly designed.”
The university is now at a full-time enrollment of around 2,200 students. Nearly $300 million has been invested into the campus, with every building now either new or renovated.
At the same time, the university prides itself on being one of the most diverse campuses in the state of Iowa, with about 23% of its enrollment representing students of color. For Hogan, it’s been an intentional effort to focus on individuals who may not have had an opportunity to succeed elsewhere. It’s important for the university to recruit students from outside the region, he says.
Factors such as geographic location, socioeconomic status and ethnic background all play a significant role in who’s accepted into University of Dubuque.
“Whether you’re from Iowa or not, now you have friends from California or Germany or all over the world,” says Hogan. “We feel that students should learn in a place that’s going to be similar to the world they’re going to be leading when they graduate.”
As Broshous explains, it’s important to recognize the demographic shift in the population of available students. The university’s admissions department is looking for students who can achieve their goals and realize their potential with guidance from the university. Along those lines, The Bridge Program helps students to “bridge the gaps” that may exist in their preparation for college. About 100 students are enrolled through this program each year.
To find these students, geographic outreach makes a big difference.
“If we were only recruiting regionally, we would have a much smaller pool to recruit from, and the competition is much greater,” says Broshous. “We are in a very competitive environment, with about 30 small private colleges and universities in Iowa. We continue to work really hard and do our best to help students find their place.”
Recently, Broshous spoke to a December graduate who was interviewing for a position at the university. During their conversation, the alumna told Broshous about a time, years ago, when she was touring another nearby campus.
She recalled how she had enjoyed her visit and was interested in attending the other school. As a soccer player, she particularly enjoyed meeting the coach. When the tour was done, her dad said, “You know, there’s another college in town, and maybe we should drive by and see what it’s like.”
After a long and exciting day, the girl wasn’t interested. However, her dad ultimately persuaded her to take the ride.
“So, they drive through campus and she literally falls in love,” says Broshous, recalling the alumna’s story. “She goes home that afternoon and emails the head women’s soccer coach at Dubuque. She says, ‘Coach, would you be interested in me?’ She schedules a visit for the next week, and she comes out and meets with the faculty and the coaching staff, then goes on a campus tour. And then, she chooses to come to the University of Dubuque.”
That young woman, who had found her home at the university, was offered the job a few days after meeting with Broshous.
“My point is, that’s what you find,” he explains. “That’s the impression that the university has on people.”