Higher Ed, Fewer Learners

In Minnesota and U.S., colleges fight to recruit shrinking pool of students

Colleges look to recover enrollment as dropoff in young adult population looms.

By Ryan Faircloth Star Tribune

Second in a series • April 30, 2022

The private College of St. Scholastica in Duluth is vowing to match the price of the University of Minnesota to woo prospective students away from the public college system.

The University of Minnesota is proposing generous new scholarships for residents in hopes they won't attend college in another state.

Winona State University is trying to lure more out-of-state students by awarding scholarships that lower their tuition to the same rate Minnesota residents pay.

Across Minnesota and the country, colleges are upping their financial aid, launching new programs and stationing more recruiters in other states as they race to recover from the fall in enrollments during the COVID-19 pandemic and brace for an impending decline in the number of high school graduates. Schools here are locked in a recruitment arms race against their in-state counterparts and out-of-state colleges that are increasingly trying to poach Minnesota students.

"We're seeing pretty intense competition at the national level," said Bob McMaster, the University of Minnesota's vice provost and dean of undergraduate education. "In attracting and enrolling students, you have to have a really good product on the table."

Undergraduate enrollment in Minnesota plunged by nearly a third between 2010-2020 amid concerns about rising tuition, slow population growth and growing skepticism about the value of college.

Soon, there will be fewer high school graduates for U.S. colleges to recruit due to a birth rate decline that began during the 2008 recession. The national pool of high school graduates is expected to peak in 2025 and fall for a decade afterwards, according to projections from the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.

"Enrollment declines have an incredible capacity to bring clarity of thought," said Carleton College economics Prof. Nathan Grawe, who wrote a book on how the demographic changes could affect higher education. "There's some real hope that institutions will take this moment as a challenge and rise to that challenge so that we improve outcomes for students."

Affordability is top of mind for many students, such as Eden Prairie High School senior Nishita Das. Because she was born in India and does not yet have permanent residency here, Das has chosen to attend the University of Manitoba in Canada, which offers cheaper tuition for international students than most American universities.

"It was the most affordable route," said Das, 17, who hopes to become a Canadian resident and eventually go to medical school. "If I picked any other more expensive college, I would have to take out loans."

Administrators at Carleton, a selective private liberal arts college in Northfield, believe financial aid will be a key sticking point as competition increases and high school graduating classes become more diverse.

Art Rodriguez, Carleton's vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid, said a growing number of U.S. private liberal arts colleges are eliminating loans from students' financial aid packages, instead covering their costs with grants, scholarships and work study jobs. Carleton has established an internal working group to determine if it can also make that commitment, Rodriguez said.

"Do we shift from loans to offering more grants? Is a no-loan option a possibility?" he said.

At Winona State, where undergraduate enrollment has fallen 28% since 2015, campus leaders have decided to more aggressively pursue out-of-state students. Starting this fall, undergraduate and graduate students from other states may receive a roughly $6,500 annual scholarship that brings their tuition down to the Minnesota resident rate.

"Let's just offer them in-state tuition as a scholarship and see what happens," Winona State President Scott Olson said. He noted that some 3,000 students from Illinois have expressed interest in attending the southeast Minnesota university this fall.

The College of St. Scholastica recently rolled out its Saints Match scholarship, which will award $27,000 to first-year and transfer students who were admitted to both St. Scholastica and the University of Minnesota, bringing the private school's sticker price of nearly $54,000 down to the average cost of attendance at the U's five campuses. The University of Minnesota Duluth is one of St. Scholastica's main competitors.

"Think St. Scholastica is more expensive than the University of Minnesota? Think again," the university boasts on its website.

Out-of-state competition grows

Minnesota colleges are worried about more than just in-state competitors.

Data provided by the University of Minnesota shows nearly 6,300 Minnesotans enrolled as freshmen at four-year colleges in Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota in the fall of 2020, while just over 2,100 students from those four states came here to study.

Minnesota students will remain "a strong market" for North Dakota State University, said Laura Oster-Aaland, the university's vice provost for student affairs and enrollment management. About 5,500 Minnesotans attended North Dakota State last fall, and the university recently finished a half-billion-dollar fundraising campaign that will expand financial aid for students.

Iowa State University, which already enrolls about 2,600 Minnesotans, plans to keep courting students from neighboring states, a spokeswoman said. Nearly 3,300 Minnesota students attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison last fall, and administrators there expect to maintain that enrollment level.

McMaster is worried Minnesota could continue to lose more students than it gains as out-of-state colleges recruit more aggressively. While national projections show the U.S. high school graduate population falling, Minnesota's graduating classes are expected to remain slightly more stable over the next decade, fluctuating between 68,000-70,000 students per year.

"These institutions are well aware of where we sit," McMaster said, explaining that colleges in states where high school graduate populations are shrinking may try to recruit Minnesota students.

The Twin Cities Regional Admissions Representatives association tracks which colleges have recruiters stationed here. In recent years, colleges from as far off as Alaska have added recruiters based in the Twin Cities, said Leah Wornath, the association's president.

"We've definitely seen an increase of out-of-state institutions either creating positions or adding more," Wornath said.

Out-of-state schools have also increased their presence at college fairs in Minnesota.

State colleges used to make up nearly half the institutions that participated in the Minnesota Education Fairs held for high school students every fall and spring. As the fairs moved online during the pandemic, as many as 3 in 4 participating colleges would be from other states, said Jeron Schmidt, chief financial officer of the Minnesota Association for College Admission Counseling, which helps organize the fairs.

"The past two years we saw a dramatic shift," Schmidt said. "It was just more accessible for institutions."

While it's generally more expensive for students to attend college out of state, some schools, such as the University of Alabama, lower costs for nonresidents through merit scholarships.

The University of Minnesota is also maneuvering based on the projected population changes, McMaster said, adding recruiters in Texas and Washington, D.C., which are among the few places expected to have more high school graduates over the next decade.

University of Minnesota leaders are upping financial aid, creating two new tuition-free programs for students whose families earn $50,000 or less annually and for members of tribal nations in the state. They also have proposed $7,000-11,000 in new scholarships for Minnesotans who enroll as freshmen at its regional campuses in Duluth, Rochester, Crookston and Morris, which administrators say have been losing prospective students to border state schools that offer more aid.

"Such a generous scholarship program would likely retain more students within the state and within the University of Minnesota system," McMaster told the university's Board of Regents in March.

Students stand to benefit

Colleges nationwide are also taking a closer look at recruiting nontraditional students, such as working adults, to help offset the anticipated decline in high school students. And they are trying to increase their retention of current students.

If colleges can convince even a small fraction of the more than 160 million Americans who are in the workforce to go back to school, it could help buoy their enrollments, said Grawe, the Carleton College professor.

Grawe pointed to the declining enrollment of male students at U.S. colleges as another area for potential growth. Women undergraduates now outnumber men in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, the University of Minnesota system and at private colleges. College administrators have yet to fully understand why the gender gap is widening.

"In a time of declining student pools, you also have the additional financial incentive to figure out the answer to that question," Grawe said.

By and large, administrators and experts believe the intensified competition will not reverse current enrollment trends. Flagship public universities and highly selective private colleges will likely continue to attract enough students, while regional public colleges and private schools with smaller endowments will have to fight to stay afloat.

The Minnesota State system, which consists of 30 public community colleges and seven regional universities, has already seen its undergraduate enrollment decline by about 25% since 2010.

"If this doesn't change, we will be in significantly rough shape," said Julio Vargas-Essex, vice president of student success at North Hennepin Community College, where enrollment has fallen 25% since 2016. "We do have concerns about what does that look like in regards to possible cutting of programs, staff reductions."

Students could ultimately emerge winners amid the increased competition, with more financial aid and academic programs to choose from than before. Using the experience of the pandemic, more colleges are creating hybrid and online degree programs capable of flexible and even accelerated graduation timelines.

Online classes have made college more accessible to students like Karina Villeda, 26, who began studying at Inver Hills Community College in January 2021. She is taking online classes while working 32 hours per week and caring for her 1-year-old daughter.

Villeda hopes to finish her associate degree this December, enroll at a four-year university and eventually go to law school.

"It's just much easier when it's online, especially when you have no one to take care of your child," Villeda said. "It's very helpful to have that flexibility."