Twin Ports colleges and universities continue to face enrollment declines similar to what schools across the county have seen since the pandemic started, though leadership at the schools all shared that their enrollment stories are more complex than just fewer students choosing to attend.
By more than one measure, the University of Wisconsin-Superior, the smallest of the four schools the News Tribune spoke with, has proven to stand apart from regional and national trends. The school’s enrollment total increased by nearly 1% this year to about 2,580 students, just shy of where that number stood in 2019.
“It’s certainly something that we’re watching daily,” UW-Superior Executive Director of Admissions Jeremy Nere said. “The concern never goes away because I know that some of those trends could change drastically. … We don’t know what impact the workforce, the political environment or the perception of higher education will have.”
Nere attributes the school’s success to a variety of factors, including the return of international students, retaining its prepandemic first-year class sizes, individualized communication with prospective students as well as a growing number of online offerings that have attracted more transfer and graduate students.
The university has also managed to continue enrolling a student body that’s made up of 45% first-generation students, while witnessing an uptick in students filing for financial aid, something that Lindsay Schall, executive director of enrollment management at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, said many schools are seeing the opposite of, in part due to the lack of access between the high school student and high school counselor while school was held remotely.
“There have always been support systems and college readiness programs for students who are low-income or first-gen,” Schall said. “Our high school students have lacked that support for the last 18 months, or access has been difficult because there’s been varying levels … on the type of access students have to those supports.”
St. Scholastica’s first-year class size dropped by more than 200 students last fall to about 380. This fall that number has seen a slight uptick to about 430. Overall, the college’s total enrollment size is still down, as the last two first-year classes have been smaller than the outgoing classes.
In the last year, Schall said St. Scholastica staff experienced a new phenomenon in their conversations with prospective students: high school students were working full-time while finishing their education online and contemplating whether or not they wanted to give up their good wages to attend college. Many did not.
Daniel Fanning, spokesperson for Lake Superior College in Duluth, said that the high demand for labor is impacting the technical school’s enrollment numbers, too.
“Some of those students who just weren’t quite sure if they wanted to do the online courses or not, or just weren’t sure with some of the uncertainty, a lot of them are taking that gap year, which has turned into a couple gap years,” he said. “Some of them are working for $15-20 an hour because that’s kind of the going wage right now.”
Fanning said the way forward for the college includes staying flexible to students’ changing needs. LSC plans to start offering weekend courses in the spring for the first time in a while in addition to adding more night classes.
At least 70% of the college’s students attend part time, which is higher than usual.
“That’s good. We’re okay with that,” Fanning said. “As long as we’re serving them, that’s all we care about.”
The University of Minnesota Duluth is reporting a 3.8% drop in its total enrollment this year, but it’s first-year class size has returned to its pre-pandemic level.
Mary Keenan, associate vice chancellor of enrollment management at UMD, partially credits the decline to last year’s smaller-than-average first-year class, which will continue to impact the school’s enrollment total until they graduate. An improving four-year graduation rate at UMD is also making a difference.
In the last five years, the graduation rate has improved to the point that roughly 180 fewer students are still enrolled at the university for a fifth year.
“The other really interesting trend that we're seeing is an improved number of students who are graduating in three years,” Keenan said, adding that 7% of students who started in 2018 graduated in three years. “So again, that improvement is a real positive. However, again, on the backside, it means that roughly there are about 70 fewer students enrolled with us for their fourth year.”
Additionally, UMD has seen a 30% decline in its international students since 2019, with 40 fewer international students attending the university this semester.
Nationwide, college enrollment numbers have been mostly flat for the last decade, according to National Center for Education Statistics data, and there’s no consensus on what that, paired with today’s new challenges, indicates about the future of higher education.
“From my perspective, I think it’s an opportunity to reimagine the student experience. When I say that, you really have to listen to students and what they’re looking for and what’s valuable to them,” Schall, of St. Scholastica, said. “I think we have an opportunity to rise to the occasion and make sure we’re matching the expectations — matching industry and a degree is really what you strive for.”