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Healing economy crimps Northland college enrollment

Forum News Service

When June enrollment numbers for Lake Superior College showed the school 10 percent behind where it was last year at the same time, the college sent out mailings, Facebook reminders and phone calls to previous students who hadn’t yet registered. Even faculty took part in the calls.

“To feel a bit better about where we stood for returning students, we needed to do a campaign,” said Gary Kruchowski, director of public information for the college. “It’s problematic to get right down to the week before school and cancel a bunch of classes people are depending on.”

The effort, he said, also brought that 10 percent number down to a 3.5 percent shortfall.

LSC isn’t the only college in the area that’s projecting lower or flat student enrollment.

The University of Minnesota Duluth expects smaller numbers overall, the College of St. Scholastica expects a smaller freshman class, and the University of Wisconsin-Superior and Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College expect little to no growth.

Officials point to a climb out of the Great Recession as one reason why many institutions are seeing a second year of lower enrollment numbers.

“We’re seeing now the result of what’s happened over the past couple of years,” said Andrea Schokker, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs at UMD, referring to a large drop in freshmen the previous year. “I’m sure it’s related to the economy and tuition and talk in the media about what’s the value of higher education.”

UMD this year expects a 7.5 percent increase in new student enrollment from fall 2012, when it had 2,227 freshmen. But last fall was the smallest freshman class in a decade, according to University of Minnesota records.

Helping to boost freshman enrollment were the U of M tuition freeze, UMD’s current 93 percent career placement rate and amped-up recruitment in Duluth, Schokker said.

Schools are finding that they can’t wait for students to come to them, she said.

“All of us are seeing that some of the past dates — the unwritten rule of when we’d hear back from students — it’s just not the same now,” she said. “Students have a lot of opportunities … it’s just a different game now.”

St. Scholastica, with a 2012 enrollment of 4,144, expects more students overall this year but a smaller freshman class, so far by about 25 students. It had a slightly smaller freshman class last year after years of growth from that group.

A lot of the growth at St. Scholastica had to do with the addition of new athletic programs, said Eric Berg, vice president for enrollment management at the college. He said for the first time last year, nontraditional students outnumbered traditional students. Nontraditional students are typically those who return to college, who are older or work full-time.

“There has been a longstanding belief that a recession is good for schools,” Berg said. “When a recession hits, jobs go away, people go back to school. The reverse can also be said. When the economy starts to recover … the incentive to go to school to get a degree is lessened.”

UWS had about 2,700 students last year and is hovering around that number now, after experiencing a drop of about 125 students from 2011, said Lynne Williams, director of marketing and communications for the university. The goal is to grow by about 300 more students, she said. Along with the economy, she said, four-year universities are dealing with online competition and flexible degree programs.

“That’s definitely been a factor for us,” she said.

Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College reached out to returning students via the phone to encourage registration this summer, said Tom Urbanski, a spokesman for the college.

“We were trending quite a bit behind, and it caught up,” he said, noting that more part-time than full-time students have enrolled so far.

One of the theories about the higher number of part-time students, Kruchowski said, is that the cost of higher education is causing people to pursue degrees at a slower rate.

The height of the recession caused a big jump in enrollment, he said, particularly at some of the metro-area colleges. Some of the institutions that saw double-digit increases are now seeing similar decreases, he said.

The decrease at Lake Superior isn’t big enough to affect the full-time college work force, Kruchowski said, but a few course sections were canceled and it might mean less work for adjunct instructors.

“This is a manageable decline for us,” Kruchowski said. “If it were 10 percent, we’d be looking at more drastic adjustments.”

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