Greater Minnesota colleges look to attract students after enrollment drop amid pandemic

·3 min read

DULUTH — Colleges in greater Minnesota are hoping to see student enrollment rebound in the coming school year after falling during the pandemic.

The University of Minnesota Duluth, the College of St. Scholastica and the University of Wisconsin-Superior were down between 4-6% in the 2020-21 school year. Lake Superior College and St. Cloud State University were down as much as 10%. Those drops were steeper than the average 1% enrollment decline across Minnesota, according to a winter report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Many traditional students chose gap years or wanted to stay closer to home, while some nontraditional students needed to care for children, said Laura Johnson, a spokeswoman for St. Scholastica.

But the school is seeing an uptick in deposits, tours and applications this spring, "and it's starting to feel like a return to the familiar."

At the two-year Lake Superior College, Daniel Fanning, vice president of institutional advancement and external relations, said he hopes new housing for 200 students will help attract people from outside the region. The college has recently recruited heavily from the Twin Cities metro area, "and when COVID hit, those student weren't coming."

Lack of housing in Duluth could have been a factor, he said, and the new facilities and return to in-person studies seem to be helping.

"We are bouncing back strong and seeing applications from outside the region," Fanning said.

UMD is offering a new $2,000 scholarship to students who left UMD in recent months along with additional advising outreach and boosting new-student goals.

When the state ordered remote learning in spring 2020, "we saw a pretty immediate impact and slow down in student confirmations and inquiries," said Mary Keenan, an associate vice chancellor at UMD.

COVID-19 restrictions led to less than 1,300 campus visitors, when a typical year would have more than 16,000. A 6% decline in the number of undergraduate students enrolled last fall followed.

But UMD expects to meet its fall goal for new students, Keenan said, returning the university to a freshman class comparable to that of 2019.

St. Cloud State University student outreach has included handwritten notes and mailed information packets to students in areas with sparse internet access.

The university serves a higher percentage of vulnerable populations than its peer institutions, officials said, which played into its 10% decline. COVID-19 came at an already difficult time for higher education as it deals with other demographic challenges that could shrink the student population, said Jason Woods, vice president for strategic enrollment management at St. Cloud State.

"But we are very confident and excited about this upcoming year," he said.

Some schools eliminated the ACT/SAT test requirement for prospective students, along with application fees. At University of Wisconsin-Superior this spring, that helped lead to a 65% increase in freshman applications. While officials expected a large increase after last spring's drop-off, the number is a 10-year high, said admissions director Jeremy Nere, noting that some of these pandemic-related changes may become part of the new normal in higher education.

UMD, along with other area institutions, expects it will take a few years to return to pre-pandemic student populations.

Things like scholarships for early applications are helping, said admissions director Ian Pannkuk.

But between demographic changes and the pandemic, "the ability to maintain the same enrollment will be increasingly challenging," he said.

Jana Hollingsworth • 218-508-2450

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