The University of Minnesota's Morris campus is boosting efforts to help students graduate in three years.

While the campus will still offer traditional, four-year programs for earning a bachelor's degree, Chancellor Janet Schrunk Ericksen said staffers are changing class schedules and providing course lists that offer clearer pathways for students in all majors to graduate in three years.

"It really is a sweet spot for us," Ericksen said.

The change comes at a time when higher education leaders across the state are trying to boost enrollments and prepare for difficult recruiting years ahead, when the number of high school graduates in Minnesota is expected to drop due in part to declines in birth rates years ago.

The Morris campus enrolls 1,020 students, down from 1,946 a decade ago, according to university data. At a meeting of the House Higher Education Committee on Thursday, both Republican and DFL lawmakers pushed U leaders for more details on what was driving the drop and what they were doing to reverse it.

Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, who chairs the committee, noted the Morris campus' enrollment declines were "by far the worst of the lot" in the University of Minnesota system.

Ericksen told lawmakers the enrollment numbers from 10 years ago represented "a high point" in the campus enrollment. She said trends on the campus were similar to ones playing out on a national level, and that the campus saw a decrease in international students after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the pandemic, she said, more than 200 international students attended Morris; now the number is closer to 30.

"We are tackling it head-on by reducing expenses as we try to respond in new ways to get people to recognize the value of spending three or four years in another part of the state, in rural Minnesota," she said.

The Morris campus is one of 13 schools participating in a national pilot program co-run by U Rochester Chancellor Lori Carrell that aims to provide students with more options to graduate faster.

Students participating in the rapid programs will still need to earn 120 credits, but they might do so on a tighter schedule that includes summer courses. Due to differences in how summer classes are billed, Ericksen estimated that some students could save as much as $20,000 over the course of their studies.

She hopes it will make college more accessible, particularly for students who have been historically excluded from higher education. But she's not pushing students to take the faster option, noting it might be a better fit for students who are especially ambitious or have already earned college credits while in high school.

"It isn't for everyone," Ericksen said.