Minnesota colleges pulled out all the stops to woo prospective students during the pandemic.

Campus tours were videotaped. Commitment deadlines were pushed. Wait lists were cleared. The switch from traditional recruiting to virtual outreach happened seemingly overnight.

And for some schools, it worked.

Fall enrollment figures for the University of Minnesota and University of St. Thomas are on par with last year’s. And while enrollments in the Minnesota State system are down from the previous year, officials point to an upward trend they hope continues into the summer.

The U’s expected fall freshman class at its Twin Cities campus is 1% larger than last year’s, according to data as of June 8. Systemwide, enrollment is down just 1.5%.

At St. Thomas, Minnesota’s largest private college, undergraduate summer credits are at an all-time high and fall freshman enrollment was down just 1% earlier this month.

Such statistics produce a sigh of relief for colleges that were staring down dire enrollment and financial projections less than two months ago.

“I’m kind of amazed that it all worked out so well,” said Bob McMaster, the U’s vice provost and dean of undergraduate education. “Our admissions office … [was] extremely creative and nimble in making that quick transition.”

Now that the fall commitment deadline for most Minnesota colleges has passed, institutions large and small are finding out whether their efforts to reach students during the pandemic were successful. Many schools have generally found their recruitment of local students kept pace with recent years, though international student confirmations have dropped significantly.

In April, the U was facing a potential fall freshman enrollment decline of 10%. Administrators pressed forward with several efforts to reach students who were on the fence at the onset of the pandemic.

University President Joan Gabel announced a tuition freeze for most students, and outstate U campuses pushed their acceptance deadlines back to June 1 while the Twin Cities campus offered extensions to students who were not ready to decide by May 1.

Twin Cities campus recruiters made offers to 1,700 students who were on its waitlist and recommended 4,000 more from the list for enrollment in U system schools, McMaster said.

The result is an incoming freshman class that is slightly larger than last year’s — and last year’s was one of the U’s largest in the past 50 years, McMaster said.

The makeup of the class is different, though, with more local students and fewer from other states and countries. As of last week, international student enrollment confirmations for this fall were down 23% compared to fall 2019.

“We’ve done very well with Minnesota confirms and with reciprocity confirms,” McMaster said. “These are students who probably want to get away from home, but not too far from home.”

St. Thomas reeled in a large freshman class with the help of a full-scale virtual recruitment effort that included webinars, online open houses, recorded campus tours and teleconferencing appointments between students and admissions advisers.

Al Cotrone, the university’s vice president of enrollment, said the school’s admissions team pivoted quickly to reach students from afar and still convey “what St. Thomas is all about.” Students were receptive to it, he added.

“Everyone is hungry right now for something personal and something … they can call as normal,” Cotrone said.

Staying optimistic

Not every school has seen the same success. Across the Minnesota State colleges and universities system, fall enrollment is down 15% from this time last year. That’s a considerable decline that could blow a hole of more than $100 million in the state college system’s budget.

Even so, there’s some cause for optimism. Bill Maki, Minnesota State’s vice chancellor for finance and facilities, noted that systemwide fall enrollment was down 22% just a month ago. He believes it will continue to improve.

“As we diligently continue our work on enrollment management, we believe this trend will continue,” Maki said in a statement.

There are bright spots in the Minnesota State system. At MSU Mankato, the freshman class this fall is larger than last year’s. Summer enrollment is up and graduate student enrollment is 20% higher than last year, President Richard Davenport said, though first-year international student enrollment confirmations are down 61%.

The school has made coronavirus prevention one of its biggest selling points to potential students, Davenport said. Admissions staffers are explaining the school’s cleaning and sanitization efforts to students and their families.

“We’re trying to … answer the questions that new students have coming in about the residence halls and the safety and the security,” Davenport said.

Ridgewater College is still busy recruiting students for the fall. The community and technical college with campuses in Willmar and Hutchinson does not have a firm enrollment deadline. In some cases, students apply for admission just weeks before the semester starts, said Laura Kuvaas, the school’s marketing and recruiting director.

Ridgewater has more new student registration days scheduled in the coming weeks, and recruiters are calling, texting and sending postcards to current and prospective students, Kuvaas said. She’s optimistic the efforts will help soften potential enrollment losses from the pandemic; as of mid-May, fall enrollment was trending 10% behind the same time last year.

“I think it’s important that students and parents know that we will be here for them,” Kuvaas said. “We’re going to support them in their decision.”