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Cali Owings, Published December 21 2013

Little of MSUM enrollment drop due to new admission standards

MOORHEAD – Minnesota State University Moorhead officials are trying to resolve a $4.9 million budget deficit by cutting programs and 22 faculty members after a steep drop in enrollment.

School officials have often pointed out they’ve contributed to the decline by turning away more students with low chances of success.

But only a fraction of the school’s enrollment losses since 2009 – the most among its four-year peers in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System – can be attributed to the reduction in students who did not meet admissions requirements.

MSUM had 853 fewer students enrolled this fall than it did in 2009, including just 50 fewer full-time students who were admitted despite test scores and high school grade point averages that didn’t meet the stated enrollment standards.

Provost Anne Blackhurst said the school couldn’t control outside factors influencing enrollment, such as the reduction in the pool of high school graduates and an improved regional economy that lures potential students into the workforce.

“We did have control over the decision to limit provisional admits,” Blackhurst said.

Enrollment down

Since 2009, MSUM has suffered the largest enrollment decline of its state university peers at 11.4 percent, a report from the Minnesota Office of Higher Education shows.

Overall enrollment at four-year schools declined in the entire system by 1.3 percent during that time.

St. Cloud State University had the second-worst enrollment loss at 8.1 percent and Bemidji State University was third with 4.2 percent.

Neighboring Concordia College, a private school, experienced an 8.4 percent drop in students over the same period.

Lower enrollment at the state’s universities follows a projected decline in Minnesota high school graduates from 63,970 in 2009 to 60,239 in 2013, according to a Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education report. North Dakota faces a similar 5 percent decline in high school graduates.

But across the river from MSUM, enrollment has been steadily climbing at North Dakota State University and hit an all-time high this fall with 14,629 undergraduate, graduate and professional students enrolled.

MSUM President Edna Szymanski said her school doesn’t necessarily “compete” with NDSU to attract the same students because each school in the tri-college area occupies a different niche. Students from NDSU are one of the largest sources of transfer students at MSUM.

Student success model

After getting only 21 of the 35 early retirements from faculty it sought to soothe a budget shortfall, the school’s administration is considering a plan to merge or eliminate several programs and cut 22 faculty positions – six of them tenure or tenure-track.

Some people have latched onto the idea that the enrollment decline that has led to the budget problems wouldn’t have been as bad if the school hadn’t closed its center for high-risk students in 2011, Blackhurst said.

As part of the school’s push to limit students who didn’t meet requirements and refer more students to area two-year schools, MSUM closed the Corrick Center that year.

“There’s some concern within members of the campus community that we did that without a back-up plan,” Blackhurst said.

Last spring, 232 students were offered admission even though they did not meet the school’s requirements. Their offers were initially rescinded, but were eventually reoffered.

Szymanski said those students would have been referred to community colleges under the new student success model.

In previous years, students who were admitted to MSUM despite their low probability of success had six-year graduation rates of about 26 percent, Szymanski said.

“In a four-year institution, that is something you do not want to see,” she said.

The school’s six-year graduation rate of 45 percent is just slightly below the 48 percent average for state universities, according to a 2011 Minnesota Office of Higher Education report.

Graduation rates are a “very great concern” in the MnSCU System and in the Minnesota Legislature, and will be “a critical part in how state appropriations are distributed in the future,” Szymanski said.

But really, it’s about an implicit contract with tuition-paying students, she said.

“When they apply to a four-year institution, it’s with the intent of getting a degree,” she said.

As part of a system, MSUM points students to start where they are most likely to succeed, which should result in better graduation rates.

Boosting transfers

Since the school started referring students to community colleges to start their career and prepare themselves for a four-year school, the number of students admitted provisionally has been cut almost in half.

Only 13.5 percent of new enrolled freshmen did not meet admissions requirements, down from a peak of 20.3 percent in 2010.

Szymanski said MSUM hasn’t “done as well at bringing them back to us as we should have,” which is why the school will focus on increasing transfer students to boost enrollment.

“Not only do we need to refer students that need to start elsewhere,” she said. “We also need to work to make it easier for those students to come to us once they’ve finished.”

Based on the size of the campus, Szymanski said a target headcount enrollment is between 7,000 and 7,500 – numbers the school hasn’t posted since 2011.

School leaders assume “conservatively” that recruitment efforts will lead to a 1 percent increase in enrollment by fiscal year 2016, she said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Cali Owings at (701) 241-5599