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In the fall of 2013, the University of Jamestown in Jamestown, N.D., welcomed its first students into its Fargo-based Doctor of Physical Therapy program. UJ started the program because it aligned with the school's mission and responded to strong demand from employers and students. IMAGE: UJ

Region's colleges strive to meet enrollment challenge

GRAND FORKS, N.D. – For America’s colleges and universities, the stakes for meeting ongoing enrollment and fiscal challenges are high.

How high?

This high:

In March, the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point announced plans to eliminate 13 majors including English, history, sociology, philosophy, political science and art.

The school must shift resources from those majors into more popular programs with clearer career paths, administrators said. That’s because the university faces a $4.5 million deficit over two years, a shortfall caused in part by falling enrollment and declining state support.

Are stressed institutions in the Dakotas and western Minnesota also on the verge of dropping their liberal-arts majors?

That’s what this story is about. What follows are snapshots of how some of the region’s public and private institutions are coping.

At Prairie Business, our sense is that while every institution in our region is facing similar pressures, the crisis level eases as a person moves west. For example, Minnesota state government is not as sympathetic as it used to be toward higher education. But it’s more sympathetic than Wisconsin state government, and that’s giving Minnesota’s public colleges and universities some much-needed breathing room.

Meanwhile, enrollments in colleges and universities in the Dakotas are holding steady. Some schools, such as Mayville State University in Mayville, N.D., and Northern State University in Aberdeen, S.D., even are showing significant growth.

A Hechinger Report story in December summarized higher ed’s enrollment challenge.

A dip in the birth rate “means there are fewer Americans at the traditional 18- to 24-year-old age of college-going,” the report noted.

“This demographic dip is most acute in the Midwest and Northeast. Meanwhile, an improving economy has lured students over 24 back into the workforce.”

The net result is that “university enrollment continued to decline in the fall for the sixth straight year, adding more bad news to the woes of financially stretched colleges and universities.”

Minnesota's efforts

In Minnesota, many schools report feeling the pinch. In fact, said the St. Paul Pioneer Press in January, “most Minnesota State colleges and universities lost money in 2016-17 as overall enrollment fell for a sixth consecutive year.

“The state’s low unemployment rate and a declining number of young adults have had the state’s largest higher-education system in budget-cutting mode for years.”

Importantly, though, “individual institutions are getting better at managing the loss in students,” according to the story.

“They’re setting budgets with more realistic enrollment targets, cutting staff and reining in course offerings.”

That has reduced the number of Minnesota State schools that are under extra scrutiny for failing financial stress tests. Two years ago, 19 of the system’s 37 schools were on that list; this year, the number is down to nine, the story reported.

Residents should understand the unique situation faced by the institutions in the region, said Barbara Keinath, vice chancellor for academic and student affairs at the University of Minnesota Crookston, in a Prairie Business interview.

The first is the observation highlighted by the Hechinger Report – the fact that “the Midwest is one of the more challenged regions in the country for high school graduates,” Keinath said.

But within that challenge are two opportunities. First, “there’s a slight uptick coming in the number of those graduates,” she noted.

Second, “the single biggest population that is not attending higher education in proportion to its numbers is rural.” And that’s true even though rural students tend to graduate from high school at higher rates.

So, one task for UMC is to convince skittish rural students of the value of the college’s unique programs. That’s not an impossible dream: “There are huge opportunities here for people to develop not only their interests, but also their leadership skills,” Keinath said.

“Plus, we have academic programs here that nobody else has got, such as our marvelous equine science program. … We take a very experiential approach to things. One student, when she came for her campus tour, asked how much hands-on time she’d get as part of her animal science major. They handed her a syringe and said, ‘Vaccinate that animal.’”

UMC also has strengthened its online programs, and is making a concerted effort to recruit underserved populations of students, Keinath said.

Dakotas see stability

Meanwhile in North Dakota, “I see us as pretty stable,” said Richard Rothaus, vice chancellor for academic and student affairs at the North Dakota University System office in Bismarck.

“We’re not going to hit the huge demographic fluctuations that some of the other states are. We’re going to see shifts, but we’re not going to see cliffs where we don’t have enough people graduating from high school.”

South Dakota is in a similar situation, as suggested by a graph that accompanies this story.

That said, “there still are things that make me nervous,” Rothaus said.

For example, “we now have a lot of completely online colleges working in our marketplace.” These include Western Governors University, Southern Hampshire University and others whose ads run frequently.

“As you know, all students in North Dakota are required to take the ACT,” Rothaus said.

“When they do, they list what colleges and universities they think they might attend.” And last year, “right smack in the middle of that list (of mostly North Dakota schools) was Arizona State University.

“I’m pretty sure North Dakota students are not thinking about picking up and moving to Arizona,” Rothaus continued. “Instead, they’re interested because of the programs ASU offers online.”

“Now, I’m not losing sleep over this,” because vast majorities of those students still want the face-to-face interaction that on-campus education offers.

But if, in fact, Arizona State Online were to become the fifth most popular institution in North Dakota, “that would be an enrollment shift that would be very hard to ignore,” Rothaus said.

While the challenges are great, it’s possible to respond in ways that help an institution thrive, the experience of several schools shows.

Mayville State University is one. “We’re on our sixth consecutive year of record-high enrollment, and the seventh one will be in the fall,” said Gary Hagen, Mayville State president.

That outcome wasn’t preordained. Mayville State sits halfway between North Dakota’s two higher-ed powerhouses, the University of North Dakota and North Dakota State University; and for years, the school suffered by comparison. Buildings deteriorated, enrollment slipped, reserves dwindled.

The turnaround started when Mayville State focused on key factors: First, the campus climate. “Where customer service is concerned, we should be like the Ritz hotel, and get the reputation of being the best,” Hagen said.  

Second, the educational marketplace. “What are the needs of the students?” Hagen added.

“What are the needs of the region, and of the state? I said, ‘Let’s forget about everything else and focus on that: finding the niches that serve those needs.’”

Third, the cost of higher education. “It simply was getting too expensive to go to school,” he said.

“So we cut our student fees, we cut textbook costs, we helped students with internships so they could earn more money, and we increased private giving for scholarships. It matters.”

And fourth, the need for new sources of revenue, especially philanthropy and grants. Today, “our campus gets 24 percent of its annual budget through contracts and grants,” Hagen said.

“UND and NDSU get about 21 percent. That means we are doing a whole lot of grant writing.”

The private University of Jamestown in Jamestown, N.D., is another local school whose growth shows the power of successful planning.

“Small, private liberal-arts colleges have been challenged as an industry for quite some time,” said Mike Heitkamp, UJ’s vice president for enrollment management.

“It hasn’t just been the last few years. But when I came here, the thing that really intrigued me about this institution was its strong strategic plan.

“And I think that’s the magic formula for the small privates, and even the midsize regionals: The ones that are doing well are the ones that are not standing still.”

At UJ, that has meant taking initiatives such as starting graduate programs, opening a campus in Fargo, N.D., expanding strategically in response to student and market needs, and building the endowment through capital campaigns.

“So, 10 years ago, we didn’t have any graduate programs whatsoever,” Heitkamp said.

“Today, one out of five Jimmies is a graduate student. The success of our graduate program has been impressive, and it exemplifies the changes that have made the university into the institution it is today.”

Tom Dennis

Editor, Prairie Business