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Despite pandemic fears, fall enrollment for Minnesota higher ed looks relatively steady

The hit to fall enrollment that some were predicting has so far not materialized.

University of Minnesota-Twin Cities campus
For the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities campus, the freshman class is expected to be similar in size, but a different mix of students than in recent years due to COVID-19.

It’s been a strange few months for most people, adjusting to life amid the biggest pandemic in a century.

That’s certainly true for college admissions departments, which typically spend much of their spring admitting new  students for the following year and waiting for them to choose a school.

This year, coronavirus hit right in the middle of all of it, and suddenly, it became unclear what the fall semester would even look like for college campuses.

Early in the pandemic, headlines proclaimed COVID-19 could bring about a major drop in college enrollment as students put off their decisions due to uncertainty over the pandemic and the economy.

As things start to settle and schools chart a course to cautiously reopen their campuses in the fall with social distancing in place, that seems to not be the case for many schools in Minnesota, though some report delayed student decisions or slight to moderate declines in enrollment.

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Disrupted process

In a normal year, prospective college students spend the fall of their senior year preparing for and submitting college applications. By the end of spring, they typically hear back from colleges and are left to make decisions before arriving on campuses in the fall.

Coronavirus has disrupted that process.

In a typical spring, Gustavus Adolphus College would have students in the final college decision-making stage visiting campus.

Like many schools, the private liberal arts college in St. Peter had to improvise, giving students a virtual opportunity to check out the campus on its website, said Richard Aune, the school’s associate vice president and dean of admission.

Despite the disruptions, the incoming class is looking pretty normal, Aune said: while applications were down slightly, the school is ahead of its target for the number of students enrolled.

“Students are very anxious to get back to the traditional in-person teaching,” he said.

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A more local University of Minnesota class

For the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities campus, the freshman class is expected to be normal in size, but a different mix of students due to COVID-19.

In the fall of 2019, University of Minnesota enrollment statistics show 67 percent of undergraduates were from Minnesota, 13 percent were from the Dakotas and Wisconsin, 11 percent came from other states and 9 percent were international.

Because of the uncertainty brought about by the pandemic, the school is expecting its freshman class to skew a little more local this fall.

“We will have a much stronger upper Middle West, Minnesota presence in the freshman class,” said Robert McMaster, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education. This year, the school did admit more students on its waitlist, who McMaster said tend to skew more local.

As of last week, the school was down 23 percent in confirmations from international students, McMaster said. Enrollment has been down especially for students in major markets like China and India, where the pandemic has brought about uncertainty over travel.

“There’s serious concerns about students being able to get a visa to come into the United States,” McMaster said.

In order to make things run more smoothly for international students, McMaster said the school has created a set of online courses so students can start their education at the U online, whether they’re in Beijing or New Delhi, and arrive in January to start the spring semester on campus.

As of last week, the school was also down 14 percent in national confirms — students from states in the U.S. other than the Dakotas and Wisconsin, which Minnesota has tuition reciprocity agreements with. McMaster attributes this to students generally opting to stay closer to home.

On the flip side, there’s a 10 percent increase in confirmed students from Wisconsin and the Dakotas.

“Reciprocity was very strong this year,” McMaster said — he thinks some Wisconsin students, for example, who wanted to get away from home opted for the University of Minnesota instead of going to California, New York, Texas or Florida.

As of June 8, the Twin Cities campus had 6,776 freshmen confirmed as coming, compared to 6,733 the same time last year.The University of Minnesota’s Duluth and Rochester campus also had more students confirmed as attending as of early June this year than they did last year.

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Some schools down in enrollment

Not every school is seeing steady enrollment amid the pandemic, though some think uncertainty may be pushing some students’ decisions back. Due to the uncertain nature of the pandemic, many campuses are also watching their “melt” rate, or how many students confirm their attendance but don’t end up coming.

As of June 21, Minnesota State (formerly MnSCU) campus enrollment for the fall was down about 13 percent compared to the same time last year, more on some campuses than others. Overall, the school is projecting a 7.7 percent enrollment decrease in its fiscal year 2021 budget.

Communications Director Doug Anderson said COVID-19-related uncertainty may well be a factor: Minnesota State schools, which include 30 colleges and seven universities, serve many of Minnesota’s economically fragile students, who are disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

In an effort to boost its fall enrollment before classes start, the system is emphasizing its affordability and publicizing scholarships for students going into high-demand occupations, and has seen a steady increase in enrollment in the weeks leading up to the fall semester start rate, Anderson said in an email.

As of early June, the University of Minnesota’s Morris and Crookston campuses are also down in confirmed freshman enrollment compared to last year.

Morris has moved its class start date up a couple weeks, and students won’t return to campus after Thanksgiving break this year.

With the early start date, it’s tough to compare this year to last year, but applications are down somewhat, said Allison Friedly, the school’s director of communications and marketing. As of June 8, the school had 293 confirmed freshmen, compared to 355 at the same time last year, though Friedly said late deciders are bringing a steady increase in confirmations as the fall semester draws closer. The school is working to fill spots at registration sessions in the coming weeks and is still accepting applications for the fall.

Uncertainty may drive enrollment

It may well be that the uncertainty caused by COVID-19 drives more students toward college in the coming weeks, and even years, if the economic fallout of the pandemic is severe. Every recession since the 1960s has seen some level of increased college attendance. Despite the increasing cost of higher education in the run-up to the Great Recession, that downturn saw more young adults enroll in college.

The nature of a pandemic makes the prospect of taking a gap year to travel less attractive, or even impossible, and whereas a booming economy in recent years meant seniors could make decent money going straight to work, lots of the jobs that haven’t come back are the ones they might have taken out of school, said Allan Cotrone, vice president for enrollment management at the University of St. Thomas, which has about the same number of student confirmations as last year.

Historically, he said, “A fair number of students who, if there’s a really robust economy will maybe try to stay in the workforce and forgo college, they will now go to college during this down economic time.”