As college enrollments in the Twin Ports continue to dwindle against a statewide backdrop of fewer high school graduates, there was a new set of numbers being given undivided attention last weekend.

It wasn't the 10,878 students currently enrolled at the University of Minnesota Duluth or the 1,865 undergraduate students on the Duluth campus of the College of St. Scholastica.

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Rather, it was the 2,000-plus students visiting UMD and the 105 families taking in St. Scholastica during the four-day weekend afforded to the state's prep students thanks to the annual Minnesota Educator Academy.

"Hopefully, these are some of the faces we see next year," said Eric Berg, vice president for enrollment management at St. Scholastica, who had an itinerary chock-full of tours and presentations. "The college puts its best foot forward over MEA (weekend)."

Cultivating a good look has been more difficult lately for UMD. The school has been mired in many months of public scandals that have resulted this school year in a pair of lawsuits brought against the university - one involving former female sports coaches filing a discrimination lawsuit, and another, announced last Thursday, from 13 graduates who say they failed to receive teaching licenses as expected because of compliance problems with a program in UMD's college of education. Those students claim they were misled by UMD.

In talking about enrollment last week before news broke of the students' lawsuit, Andrea Schokker, UMD's executive vice chancellor for academic affairs, admitted it had been a difficult slog for UMD lately.

"On the education front, all of the stuff has been turned in to the Board of Teaching," Schokker said, explaining that UMD met an internal accreditation deadline ahead of an official date next April. "I'm not concerned about it; it was a matter of making sure we had the right paperwork in."

The university is down more than 800 students from a growth period that peaked in 2011. Schokker said she's not sure how much of a role negative publicity played in the drop from 11,093 students last fall or the decline of 199 freshmen from last year to this one.

"I'm sure that the general perception around some of the tough issues was a challenge; I'd much rather read in the paper good things about where I'm going to school than tough things," Schokker said. "But that's where I struggle, is with, 'How much of some of that did influence students' perception when the reality of being a student here is much different than that?' "

Schokker was bullish on the UMD experience - "we love this place," she said, citing a close-knit university community - as she dissected the university's enrollment strengths (engineering, new programming) and areas with room for improvement (both liberal and fine arts, including education majors).

With 3,323 students at the start of this school year, the Swenson College of Science and Engineering features almost a third of UMD's enrollment, making it the third largest college in the entire University of Minnesota system, Schokker said. Enrollments are capped to keep classroom sizes in check and there are waiting lists for almost every engineering discipline.

Schokker, who started the school's civil engineering major as its first department head before joining the administration, is teaching a concrete design class this year. She said there is a big push among students and their parents to join science, engineering, technology and math fields - the "STEM" majors, as they're popularly known - that tend to hardwire into well-paying career jobs out of college.

"But there's a lot of folks in great jobs that came out of liberal arts," she said.

It's in those areas that the university is experiencing a dip in enrollment.

"I'd love to have more fine arts, liberal arts, education and social work students coming in," Schokker said. "We need those graduates."

Job readiness also has played a role in some of the swelling numbers in new majors offered by the school. In a new hybrid marketing and graphic design major, numbers increased from 30 to 39 students this fall, and a cultural entrepreneurship program that Schokker said is well-tailored for Duluth's tourist economy grew from 28 students last fall to 39 students this fall.

Conversely, the perception exists, Schokker said, that liberal and fine arts fields aren't lucrative despite what she described as job placement rates in the 90th percentile for graduates across the entirety of the university's offerings. The numbers bear that out:

  • Since 2013, liberal arts majors are down more than 300 students, education and human service majors almost 200 and fine arts majors down almost 50 students.
  • Comparatively over the same two-year period, business and economics majors are up by 112 students and engineering majors have increased by 45 students.

"I wish families and students could be more informed about what the different disciplines are and what the value of a fine arts or liberal arts degree is," Schokker said.

Finally, she said it was a false to assume UMD was suffering for a lack of enrollment.

"We are using every square foot of this place for classrooms right now," Schokker said, acknowledging that one of the largest classroom buildings, Cina Hall, is closed for the school year to undergo renovations. "It's really a myth that we have all these empty seats sitting here, because that's not what the case is."

Saints march up

At St. Scholastica, Berg described a perfect storm of issues affecting the larger trend of downward enrollments. He cited the state's number of graduating high school seniors being down about 8,000 in recent years, along with the seniors' continued historic prowess on college entrance exams, particularly the ACT.

"The problem with Minnesota is that for the 10th year in a row we've had the highest ACT scores in the country," he said. "That means everyone wants to come and fish in our pond."

The enrollment expert called the state a net exporter, meaning more in-state students leave than join the state's colleges and universities from out of state. Almost 6,000 more students left than came in from other states, he said.

"Minnesota should figure out how to keep more of its students in state to go to college," Berg said, citing states that incentivize local enrollment - making it more lucrative for students to stay.

St. Scholastica saw its undergraduate enrollment on the Duluth campus drop slightly, from 1,912 in 2014 to 1,865 in 2015. But the school was able to extrapolate some positives out of its fall numbers.

Taking into account graduate students, online and extended campus numbers (from the school's campuses in Brainerd, Rochester, Inver Grove Heights and its new Arizona campus outside Phoenix), the school is at an all-time high with 4,360 students. The entirety of the college is growing faster than its traditional main campus undergraduate population is shrinking, Berg said.

"And we continue to see success in our recruitment effort to become a more diverse and inclusive campus," Berg said, citing a 439-member freshman class in which 13.5 percent of its students self-identified as students of color. That's up from 8.5 percent among 460 freshmen last year.

"That was a goal of ours and it's good to see," Berg said.

UWS gets diverse, too

At the University of Wisconsin-Superior, an uptick in the freshman class - from 321 last fall to 363 this fall - was buoyed by the addition of 90 international students, a school record.

The previous high was 61 in 2010. With 27 countries represented, including 11 students from South Korea and 10 from China, the diverse mix is fueling a renewal on campus, said Daniel Fanning, the university's director of communications and government affairs.

"In addition to a large, diverse and energized freshman class, we have several new faculty and staff members on campus and there's an overall feeling of positive momentum and excitement about the direction we're heading," Fanning said, admitting that the school has endured a difficult few years that has seen enrollment dip to 2,505, a drop of 217 students since the fall of 2012.

Fanning cited "some failed strategies and budget/economic uncertainty" for the school's waning numbers.

"Just like the economy, it's going to take some time to fully recover from a few bad years," he said. "But it feels like we've hit that bottom line and are now on the upward trajectory. We're starting to retell our story."

LSC tightens its belt

Lake Superior College is feeling the effects of a rebounding economy and smaller high school senior classes, said Janet Blixt, the school's director of marketing and public relations. With a healthier job market, fewer people are coming back to the two-year college to retrain, Blixt explained.

Numbers are down about 450 students from a year ago, to a headcount of 4,549 students - including 1,919 full-time students and 2,630 part-timers. That means certain practicalities come into play.

"We have to tighten our belts, no doubt about it," Blixt said plainly. "That means when people retire or take a job somewhere else we don't replace them."

Like a lot of college and university administrators, Blixt is loathe to buy into the idea that growth is inevitable and contraction is a failure. Instead, Blixt is versed in nuance and sussing out the successes.

"The last couple years enrollment has gone down but in certain areas we're seeing growth in terms of job prospects and careers," she said. "People can get good jobs and be paid well."

Programs for piloting and aviation maintenance, truck driving and welding, and a host of medical assistant and nursing programs, all continue to trend upward, Blixt said.

The school also added a new program that allows for military medics to transition into nursing and physical therapist assistant degrees.

"We're working with vets coming back," she said, as a way of putting the emphasis on substance.