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Enrollment in Minnesota’s higher education institutions is down — and it may be for a while

Enrollment often drops during good economic times. But there are also more enduring factors at play.

Enrollment is down from 2010 levels in higher education institutions overall in Minnesota.
REUTERS/Mike Blake

Declining enrollment at colleges and universities in Minnesota is making it tougher for some schools — reliant on tuition for financial support — to pay their bills.

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Enrollment is down from 2010 levels in higher education institutions overall in Minnesota.

The drop isn’t entirely unexpected, nor is it unique to Minnesota: It’s usual during good economic times for college enrollment to decline as people choose to enter the workforce instead of going to school. But there are also some worrying demographic trends ahead that could extend enrollment declines no matter what happens with the economy in the future.


In 2010, there were nearly 20 percent more undergraduates in college in Minnesota than there were in 2016. That’s when college enrollment saw a 20-year peak, from which it's fallen since, according to data from the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.

Enrollment in Minnesota colleges and universities, 2001-2016
Includes all undergraduate students enrolled in public and private schools in Minnesota, excluding Capella and Walden universities.
Source: Minnesota Office of Higher Education

There are a couple of reasons for the recent drop, said Meredith Fergus, of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.

Think back to 2010, when more students were enrolled in Minnesota post-secondary institutions than at other times in the last two decades, and you might remember a big recession that cast a pall on the economy.

With unemployment more than double what it is today, it was tough to find jobs, and consequently, lots of people went to school. At the height of the recession, 71 to 72 percent of high school graduates were going off to college. Today, it’s about 69 percent, Fergus said.

A pattern of dropping enrollment during prosperous times is well-established, she said, describing a correlation between recessions and enrollment in college and universities going back decades.

But in this job market, people who might have signed up for classes are finding jobs instead.

“Yes, it could be that they’re going into military service (or) they’re going into an apprenticeship … but largely they’re going to work,” Fergus said.

“Everywhere you go there’s a hiring sign. … I was down in Marshall last week and McDonald’s was hiring at (up to) $15 an hour.”

Other states are experiencing a similar phenomenon, said Lewis Sanborne, a vice president at Ruffalo Noel Levitz, an enrollment management firm. He told a story he recently heard from a Wyoming community college faculty member.

A student came into the faculty member’s office with doubts about staying in school after being offered a $60,000-a-year job driving a water truck. The student, he said, would be making more than the faculty member.

Now, enrollment could edge up again if the economy declines. But there’s another, less variable factor at play.


Birthrates in Minnesota are not increasing.

“Minnesota just had a drop in birthrates and we’re not importing individuals into the state anymore as much as we were in the 1990s,” Fergus said.

Corresponding to that drop in birthrates is a drop in the number of high school graduates in Minnesota, the pool of potential college students. The number of high school graduates in Minnesota, currently in the midst of a dip, is expected to see a bump around 2025, before declining again, according to projections from the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE).

That’s true on a national level, too, Sanborne said. WICHE releases new projections every four years or so. The most recent, which came out in 2016, only have observed enrollment numbers until 2010-11, and begin projecting in the 2011-12 school year. But other sources have reiterated the findings, wrote Peace Bransberger, a senior research analyst at WICHE, in an email to MinnPost.

Minnesota high school graduates by year, real and projected
Source: Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education

“We’re kind of in a bumpy part of that graph … starting next year, we’re going to see some growth through 2024, 2025, but then it’s going to crash.”

This crash could be felt especially in some of the country’s rural areas, where populations aren’t expected to grow as much as the cities do in the coming decades, Sanborne said.

Hopefully, Fergus said, declines in higher education enrollment in Minnesota will stay at under 1 percent per year for the next few years.

As for further out, the declining birthrate trend line suggests this scenario could very well play out again after the projected high school graduate bump in the mid-2020s, but Fergus said the economy would play too large a role in college enrollment rates to guess.

Enrollment impact

The pressures of the enrollment dip are being felt at all sorts of postsecondary institutions. But it hits two-year colleges the hardest.

Two-year colleges in the Minnesota state system, formerly MnSCU, saw enrollment increase during the recession.

“The colleges saw enrollment growth, I think, north of 20 percent,” said Laura King, the Minnesota State system's vice chancellor of finance and chief financial officer.

But state colleges saw a 22 percent decline in undergraduate enrollment between 2010 and 2016, including full- and part-time students, compared to a 17 percent decline for Minnesota State universities, according to stats from the Office of Higher Education.

“The four-year colleges, especially the University of Minnesota and the privates, have a little more flexibility in offsetting that softening. They can bring in more transfer students, and they can change their admission requirements to bring in more,” Fergus said. At the Minnesota State system's four-year schools, she said, there’s been a transfer program expansion to bring more two-year students into four-year schools.

Total undergraduate enrollment (full-time and part-time) by type of institution in Minnesota, 2010-2016
Source: Minnesota Office of Higher Education

Overall, University of Minnesota campuses have seen about a half a percent decline in full- and part-time undergraduate enrollment since 2010, according to the Office of Higher Education. While some campuses, such as Duluth and the Twin Cities, have increased or maintained enrollment, others, like Morris and Rochester, have seen numbers decline.

In total, Minnesota’s private colleges and universities have seen a 7 percent decline in undergraduate enrollment since 2010, according to data from the OHE, but the degree to which enrollment is up or down varies by school.

Increasing, against the odds

With birthrates slowing, one way for higher education institutions to increase their enrollment is to increase their market share. That happened in the latter half of the 20th century, when more women and people of color started going to college, but now there are fewer large groups with relatively low attendance shares, Sanborne said.

But many colleges are increasing their efforts to enroll and successfully serve nontraditional students and students from groups who attend college at lower rates, such as students with college readiness and language barriers.

One two-year school that has increased its enrollment is Pine Technical and Community College, in Pine City, south of Hinckley.

Campus President Joe Mulford says it’s not exactly clear why his school’s headcount has increased while others’ have fallen. Pine Technical and Community College's enrollment has increased by about 20 percent, in terms of full-year equivalent students, since 2010, according to Minnesota State.

Pine Tech is in an area that has relatively low college attendance rates, so it’s possible, Mulford said, that community outreach efforts, such as in local school districts, have been effective in persuading people to get a degree. The enrollment increases have been across the board, from its nursing program to its courses in cybersecurity, manufacturing, machinery and auto technology.

Mulford believes the school’s gained a reputation in the community for being student-centric that’s helped it grow, too.

“There’s a lot of available students out there, I guess, but I think as an organization, what we’ve done is we’ve made student success everybody’s job, so whether it’s just helping them get into school or helping them once they’re in school, we’ve tried to incorporate that into everybody’s job functions,” Mulford said.