The state university in Moorhead, Minn., has watched a tenth of its enrollment evaporate in just three years, prompting some painful discussions about cutting faculty and programs.

But some of the shrinkage, it turns out, was intentional.

In 2010, Minnesota State University Moorhead decided it was admitting too many unqualified students, and it started referring “large numbers” to community and technical colleges, said Moorhead President Edna Szymanski.

“For us, it was about doing what’s right,” she said. “Because nobody gains when these students leave without a degree.”

The harsh truth, Szymanski said, is that for many years, about 15 to 20 percent of the freshmen admitted to Moorhead didn’t meet its published admissions standards. It was a common practice at many universities, she said, as they struggled to keep their classrooms full. The problem, she said, was that many of those students were failing.

In that group, studies showed, less than 25 percent “leave us with a bachelors’s degree in six years,” she said. “Many of them leave with debt and no degree.”

Three years ago, her university switched gears. Instead of admitting students who might not cut it academically, she said, it pointed them to two-year technical or community colleges “where they’re most likely to succeed.”

Since then, Moorhead’s enrollment has shrunk from 7,500 to 6,600 students, due in part to the stricter admissions but also to the economic downturn and other changes.

It’s the kind of thing that may happen more and more, she said, at other schools that are part of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. In November, the board of trustees adopted a plan designed to encourage more collaboration among its two- and four-year public colleges, which are spread across 54 campuses throughout Minnesota.

“We’re a system,” Szymanski said. “We shouldn’t be competing. We should be saying, ‘Where should this student start in order to help them succeed?’ ”