Iowa Western eliminates ASL training program

Bob Vizz of the Deaf Services Commission of Iowa, and a sign language instructor at the University of Iowa, addressed Iowa Western Community College's board meeting July 13 in Atlantic.

Current students in the American Sign Language interpreter training program at Iowa Western Community College will be its last.

In May, the college’s Board of Trustees voted to eliminate the program, citing its cost, declining enrollment and the economics of the local labor market. The board gave its approval to a teach-out plan, which will make sure anyone going into or currently enrolled in the program can complete a degree.

ASL interpreting has been offered at Iowa Western for almost 40 years, and it is the only program in Iowa on this side of the state.

This spring, the program had 32 full-time and 10 part-time students, said Marjorie Welch, vice president of academic affairs. The program graduated 14 students last year, she said.

Welch said an analysis of the program over the past 20 years showed that enrollment has been moving to more part-time students in general.

“Our enrollment is shifted to a point where we are serving more part-time students than full-time students,” she said. “Demand for sign-language interpreters is extremely weak.”

The program is also among Iowa Western’s most expensive, Welch said. The average cost per credit hour is $285.55, while the average is $164.52. It is the college’s third most expensive program, she said, and costs have gone up 63 percent in the past three years.

Demand for the program has faded, too, as fewer jobs are found by Iowa Western’s ASL graduates. The college doesn’t want to leave graduates with debt but not be able to find a job using their degree, Welch said.

“These are not transferable skills,” she said. “I know this is a difficult decision.”

In August, the board decided to review its decision. Four members of the Board of Trustees met as a special committee to reconsider whether to keep the interpreter training program. In November, the advisory committee confirmed the decision to phase out the program.

Students who were already enrolled in the program are part of a teach-out option ensuring they can finish with a degree. It is closed to new enrollments, and with the committee’s recommendation is likely to remain shuttered until the program is fully phased out as its students graduate or drop out.

Carolyn Cool, program chair, recently accepted a buyout.

News of the program’s fate caught much of the deaf community Council Bluffs off guard back in the spring.

The college may continue to offer courses in American Sign Language.

At the college’s July meeting, held in Atlantic, a half-hour of testimony urged the board to reverse course. Some also suggested the college separate its American Sign Language offerings from its interpreter training program, a move reflected in the recommendations made by the trustees.

Bethany Koubsky, a spokeswoman for the program’s advisory committee, said the deaf community “is going to be devastated” by the continued lack of available interpreters. She said there’s no other interpreter training program in the area, and she said she is skeptical of the research done by the trustees.

“In my opinion, I think it was already decided,” Koubsky said. “It is too bad that they went with this decision.”

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