Minnesota college enrollment back to pre-recession level

Back in the work force? (MPR Photo / Alex Friedrich)
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Enrollment at many Minnesota colleges and universities continues to drop as the wave of students seeking education during the recession has ebbed.

Preliminary figures from the state Office of Higher Education show that overall headcount is down 2.7 percent since last fall. And it’s down almost 5 percent since the first wave of students hit campuses in fall 2009.

That has left overall Minnesota enrollment roughly where it was in 2008 — just before the recession.

Enrollment has been most volatile at for-profit career schools and community and technical colleges. Community college enrollment is down 2 percent since the first wave of recession-era students hit campuses in 2009. For-profit-college enrollment has declined 39 percent since then.

“Those were the campuses where enrollment went up dramatically during the recession and the low economic growth,” said state analyst Tricia Grimes. “And now those are the places where we’re seeing enrollment decline.”

In 2009, a lot of students began going to college on Minnesota campuses — many of them older students looking to retrain or get new skills.
That peaked around 2010-11, and has been falling quite a bit ever since.

For-profit career schools got hit the hardest. Their enrollment dropped about 18 percent this year, and is down more than a quarter since 2008. That has led to the closure of more than a dozen small, single-program schools since then.

Among the large schools, the Minnesota School of Business has lost 44 percent of its students. Rasmussen has lost about 13 percent.

Some colleges have cut staff and programs, and Rasmussen announced in January that it was cutting tuition by 18 percent here in Minnesota.

Industry spokesman Tom Kosel told me the lack of jobs and a fear of debt drove away a lot of students — and scrutiny by the government and news media probably was probably a factor as well.

The state’s community and technical colleges also saw a lot of volatility. Community college enrollment is down 2 percent since the first recession-era students hit campuses in 2009.

Like career schools, they attracted a lot of vocation-oriented older students during the recession. But enrollment also dropped more as the job market improved and lured them away.

“The biggest enrollment declines we’re seeing in Minnesota seem to be the same as those nationally, which is: It’s students that are probably between the ages of 24 and 40. And those students are often enrolled in programs that are designed to get them into the job market or to upgrade their skills.”

But enrollment there is still up 6.5 percent since 2008.

The swings aren’t so large at most state universities and the University of Minnesota system, which are a little above where they were before the recession.

Enrollment at the Twin Cities campus of the U is mostly flat, and is down a bit at the Duluth campus. Crookston, Morris and Rochester, however, show big growth over the past five years.


Neither have private nonprofit colleges haven’t seen much movement; they’re about half a percent below where they were five years ago.

A spokesman for the Minnesota Private College Council says the undergraduate market tends to be pretty stable.

But there has been greater variability in graduate school enrollment, which is usually tied more closely to the job market.

Hamline University is an example. Overall enrollment there has dropped 11 percent since 2009, but its undergrad enrollment is up more than 15 percent.

Not all nonprofit colleges can rely on such dynamics, however. The College of Visual Arts in St. Paul closed this year due to enrollment declines.

A few public schools have ordered cuts and begun to rethink what programs they want to offer.

Just this month, Northwest Technical College in Bemidji — whose enrollment is down about 12 percent from 2008 — announced a huge restructuring for next year.

Minnesota State University — Moorhead, which is down more than 11 percent — is phasing out a handful of majors and merging about a dozen departments.

The University of Minnesota – Duluth, which has seen a 1 percent drop in enrollment since 2008, ordered a sweeping evaluation of all programs and services this fall.

And they’ve floated the idea of early-retirement packages for staff at Winona State, though enrollment there appears to be up a few percent over the past five years.

Despite the drops, a number of bright spots are apparent. Campuses such as St. Paul College, Metropolitan State and Concordia University in St. Paul have seen growth of 20-40 percent. And Capella and Walden, which have online courses nationwide, saw gains of more than 40 percent.