After five years of declining enrollment, St. Cloud State University has announced a “flexible hiring freeze” to try to whittle down an expected $8 million to $10 million deficit.

This week, President Earl Potter sent out an all-campus e-mail saying that the school is projecting a 4 to 5 percent drop in enrollment this fall. That follows a 10 percent decline over the previous four years.

Potter said that the university is “not considering layoffs” at this time, but that it is developing a plan to close the budget hole over two or three years, starting with the partial hiring freeze.

“We still employ the same number of people we did when the enrollment decline started,” he said in an interview. “We have to align our staffing with the reality of fewer students.”

Potter said he hopes to save $4 million this fall by eliminating some vacant positions and trimming non-personnel expenses.

The flexible hiring freeze will not apply to student jobs or graduate assistantships, or to jobs deemed critical to keeping the university running.

St. Cloud State, one of the largest four-year universities in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, has seen its enrollment shrink more dramatically than many of its sister schools. Since the fall of 2010, its student body declined from 18,650 to 16,765 last year, according to a state enrollment report.

Potter said that the economy and other factors have contributed to the decline, including the university’s decision last year to accept fewer students needing remedial help.

“We were admitting a significant number of students who had a 5 percent chance of graduating — that’s a bad thing,” he said. The university decided to refer about 160 students who previously would have been accepted to two-year colleges where, Potter said, “they are better served.”

At the same time, he noted that St. Cloud has a high percentage of part-time students, who sometimes need to take time off to earn money for college.

He said that colleges across the nation are struggling with similar challenges, including declining numbers of high school seniors.

“The whole country is going through this,” he said. “Enrollments are down across the country.”

But he said he’s not worried by the trend. “What we’re trying to do is right-size and figure out what’s the appropriate size for St. Cloud State University,” he said. “It does not mean getting bigger and bigger. That’s not our future.”