The University of Minnesota's incoming freshman class is on track to be its largest in decades and its most diverse in history, suggesting the state's flagship institution will see a big enrollment rebound this fall as it returns to mostly normal operations.

Freshman confirmations are up 14% at the Twin Cities campus, with nearly 7,500 new students committed to attend compared with just 6,500 at this time last year. Systemwide, freshman confirmations are up 12% across the U's five campuses. Other colleges in the state are not seeing the same spike, though some are reporting promising increases in international students after a year in which that group's enrollment plummeted.

"The numbers right now look absolutely rock-solid," said Bob McMaster, the U's vice provost and dean of undergraduate education. "I have no doubt that we're going to land an absolutely terrific class."

Colleges nationwide are hoping for an enrollment recovery after the pandemic ravaged their finances and forced most classes and campus operations online for more than a year. Most institutions are planning to resume in-person classes and activities this fall.

The number of Minnesota high school graduates who have committed to attend the U's Twin Cities campus is up 10% from last year. Confirmations from U.S. students living in non-neighboring states, who pay higher tuition, are up 23% at the Twin Cities campus while international student confirmations are down just 3%, McMaster said.

"It means students have a better appetite for moving beyond their region this year," McMaster said, pointing to the vastly improved pandemic outlook and rollback of travel restrictions. At this time last year, international student confirmations at the Twin Cities campus were down 23%.

The Twin Cities' incoming freshman class is also shaping up to be the most diverse yet. More than 30% of the roughly 7,500 who have confirmed are students of color, McMaster said. Students of color made up 28% of last year's freshman class.

The boost in commitments comes even as the U received about 5% fewer freshman applications. The university admitted more students than in traditional years to ensure it would land a large class.

Administrators are anticipating some "summer melt" — students who commit but do not show up. About 10% of freshmen who committed to attend the Twin Cities campus last fall did not actually enroll, an unusually large percentage that McMaster attributes to pandemic uncertainty. The final tally of the 2020 class was 5,966 students.

Even if this year's freshman class experiences similar melt, it's still likely to be the largest in several decades, McMaster said. The largest freshman class in recent history came in fall 2019, with about 6,300 students.

"Higher ed is somewhat back in business," McMaster said. He recently had a call with administrators from other Big Ten universities who reported similar "skyrocketing enrollments."

Varying impacts

Not all institutions are projecting an enrollment boom.

At Minnesota State University, Mankato, the state's second largest public college, freshman confirmations are down 19% from last year. That decline is driven by fewer students from Minnesota and other states enrolling, said David Jones, Mankato's vice president for student affairs and enrollment management. Though he noted that international student applications rose 119%.

Overall enrollment among undergraduate and graduate students is up 3.5%, so the university will not have to immediately grapple with the financial implications of a smaller freshman class.

"A smaller class has a ripple effect for at least four years," Jones said.

Across the Minnesota State system's 30 community colleges and seven universities, overall enrollment for the fall is down 3.5% from this time last year, said system spokesman Doug Anderson. Twenty institutions are facing enrollment declines while 17 are projecting an increase.

Minnesota's largest private college, the University of St. Thomas, is expecting a slightly smaller freshman class. About 1,300 freshmen were committed to attend as of Thursday, said vice president for enrollment management Al Cotrone. Last year's final freshman tally was about 1,400 students.

St. Olaf College in Northfield experienced a 24% surge in freshman applications for the fall. The residential liberal arts college is on pace to meet its goal of having a freshman class just as large as the previous year's, said Chris George, St. Olaf's dean of admissions and financial aid.

After years of mostly even enrollment, Bethel University, a Christian college in St. Paul, is seeing a slight uptick with 2% more freshmen confirmed to attend.

"We're seeing high school graduates ready to emerge from the pandemic," said Timothy Hammer,Bethel's director of communication.

Ryan Faircloth • 612-673-4234

Twitter: @ryanfaircloth