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Published August 09, 2010, 11:54 AM

COVER STORY: Enrollment Growth

Universities get creative to boost student population

Like a growing number of colleges across the country, Dakota State University’s website prominently displays links to the university’s Facebook and Twitter accounts and other ways to interact with the college through social media.

While social media sites are typically used as a marketing tool, the technology has also played a key role in the university’s attempts to grow its enrollment.

“We’ve used technology as part of the recruitment process with social media, using our website and adding videos and blogs to our website,” says Amy Crissinger, the university’s admissions director. “In the past, students would contact us at a high school visit or a college fair and we would start a communication flow with them. For more and more students now, our first contact with them is through our website. We don’t always even know they are checking us out until we get an application from them.”

Dakota State University in Madison, SD, which has seen enrollment balloon 26 percent since the fall of 2002, is one of a growing number of colleges and universities in the region experiencing significant increases in its student population in recent years. Despite aging population trends in many communities throughout the area that is leading to reduced numbers of high school graduates, colleges and universities in North Dakota, South Dakota and western Minnesota have managed to increase student enrollments.

South Dakota’s public university system has reported record-high enrollment numbers for 12 consecutive years and the state’s six public universities’ fall 2009 total enrollment of 33,779 has jumped by 31 percent since 1997. North Dakota’s 11 public universities posted a record enrollment of 45,817 last fall, a 34 percent increase in the last decade. The total headcount of postsecondary enrollment in Minnesota, including public, private and community and technical colleges, has soared by 33 percent in the last 10 years and totaled 372,108 last fall, according to data compiled by the Minnesota Private College Research Foundation.

Many colleges in the region are recruiting students from a wider geographic base, adding more online and distance education classes and expanding offerings for members of the workforce seeking to brush up on their skills or enter a new career field. The additions of new and enhanced degree programs that fill workforce needs have also impacted enrollment numbers.

“One of the amazing things about the enrollment growth is that North Dakota is the state that has been projected to experience the largest decline in high school graduates between 2000 and 2017,” says Michel Hillman, vice chancellor for academic and student affairs with the North Dakota University System. “We are about halfway into that, but we have actually been able to grow enrollment because we are serving new markets for students.”


A number of universities in the region have posted strong enrollment gains in the last decade.

Fargo’s North Dakota State University has increased enrollment by 47 percent since the fall of 1999 and has set fall enrollment records for 10 years in a row, surpassing 14,000 students for the first time last fall. NDSU also reported a record spring 2010 enrollment of 13,411. The University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, ND, has increased total enrollment by 24 percent in the last decade to 13,172 last fall — its second-highest total ever. The university also posted a school-record enrollment of 12,733 this spring.

South Dakota State University in Brookings, SD, reached a record fall 2009 enrollment of 12,376, a 42 percent increase from fall 2000 and a 9 percent jump since fall 2006. The University of South Dakota in Vermillion, SD, has experienced a 21 percent enrollment boost since fall 2003, reaching 9,617 last fall, a 3.5 percent increase from the previous year.

But enrollment increases haven’t been limited to larger state universities. Dickinson (ND) State University has witnessed enrollment soar by 48 percent in the last decade, reaching 2,767 last fall — capping 14 straight years of enrollment growth. Bismarck State College, a community college, has grown enrollment by a whopping 47 percent in the last decade, surpassing 4,000 students for the first time last fall.

Spearfish, SD-based Black Hills State University, which has boosted enrollment by 10 percent since fall 2002, is one of a number of other colleges, universities and community colleges throughout the region that have found ways to increase student populations.

The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, which comprises 32 state universities and community and technical colleges in the state, experienced record enrollment growth this spring, with 14,338 new students in the last year, an 8 percent increase from the previous year. Northwest Technical College in Bemidji, MN, helped lead the way with a whopping 16.9 percent jump in annual total enrollment last fall.

Recent enrollment increases come at a key time for the region’s higher education system, which is attempting to build the workforce of tomorrow and retain the best and brightest young minds despite projected declines in local high school graduates in many communities.

“Our challenge is clear,” says Jack Warner, executive director and CEO of the South Dakota Board of Regents. “We must educate more South Dakotans and graduate more of them with college degrees. Simply put, this is a workforce and economic development issue. Recent enrollment increases demonstrate that we are moving in the right direction.”

A number of factors have contributed to the enrollment upswing at local higher education institutions.


Some of the largest enrollment gains have been driven by the growth of online and distance learning enrollment numbers.

The number of students taking online courses in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system jumped by nearly 22 percent last fall.

Hillman of the North Dakota University System says if the increase in online students within the system was subtracted from overall campus enrollment numbers, nine of the state’s 11 public universities would have experienced total enrollment declines since the fall of 1999. Of course that’s not a true comparison, as some on campus students also take online classes, but it is a strong statement about the increasing importance universities are placing on increasing online offerings.

Online enrollment has been increasing by about 15 percent to 20 percent per year in North Dakota’s state public university system, Hillman says. Roughly half of the system’s online students also take classes on campus. While some online students are already attending classes in person, the benefits of becoming more responsive to students’ needs and matching curriculum with the changing times is becoming evident.

Bismarck State College is one of a number of colleges in the region that have experienced growth in both online and on campus enrollment.

“Students are using online as a way of meeting their objectives when their schedules wouldn’t otherwise allow it,” says Larry Skogen, president of Bismarck State College, who says about half of the college’s 1,800 online students also took classes on campus last year. “A lot of our students also work. If a class is only offered when they are scheduled to work, they will look at our online catalog and take the course online. I think eventually we will stop talking about online and on campus, it will just be melded together.”

Dakota State University, which has been ranked as one of the nation’s most wired universities, was one of the first colleges in the region to offer classes online. “We’ve had online courses for a long time,” Crissinger says. “It started with individual courses and now it has moved into individual degree programs.”

Hillman says universities are attempting to keep pace with technology and the changing needs of students and the workplace.

“The technology to deliver online courses continues to grow and evolve,” he says. “We’re looking more and more at how we can affect even greater efficiencies from online delivery. Are there ways that faculties can collaborate on teaching courses?”


One factor mentioned by a number of admissions officials for helping to drive student recruitment is the relative affordability of a college education in the region, especially in North Dakota and South Dakota.

“Finances absolutely are a primary consideration for students in this area,” says Tracy Welsh, South Dakota State University’s director of admissions.

Nearly a decade ago, South Dakota State University began a novel program that assured incoming freshmen with ACT scores of 24 or higher at least $1,000 in scholarships per year for four years provided they maintained minimum GPA requirements once in school. The ‘Jackrabbit Guarantee,’ as it has become known, coincided with the start of significant enrollment increases at South Dakota State and has been so popular that it has spawned a number of similar programs.

“At the time it was unprecedented,” Welsh says. “In our region at that time the majority of scholarships were one-year awards and they weren’t at the level we were offering. After we implemented the program, other institutions came up with their own version of the program.”

Around the same time the South Dakota Board of Regents reduced out of state tuition costs. Several years later the South Dakota state legislature started the South Dakota Opportunity Scholarship, which was partially modeled after the ‘Jackrabbit Guarantee.’ The South Dakota Opportunity Scholarship provides South Dakota residents with $1,000 in scholarships per year for their first three years and $2,000 their senior year if they score 24 or higher on the ACT test, meet high school GPA requirements and take a college preparatory curriculum. Incoming freshmen from South Dakota high schools can take advantage of both the state opportunity scholarship and individual university programs.

“These programs have provided a good financial incentive for South Dakota residents to remain in state and get their degree,” Welsh says.

The University of North Dakota was ranked first in the nation and North Dakota State University was second in a recent Forbes magazine feature that graded universities based on tuition stability, examining the risk of tuition increases at 164 major research universities across the country. The University of South Dakota was 18th, South Dakota State was 20th and the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus was 119th out of 164 universities listed in the report.

South Dakota and North Dakota, which has been buoyed by its booming energy sector, possess economies that have performed better than those in many other states, allowing both states to avoid the higher education funding cutbacks that have helped lead to tuition increases in other states.

“The legislature, with the governor’s recommendation, allowed us to freeze or limit tuition on every campus, which really helps to make college more affordable to students and helps us recruit students,” the North Dakota University System’s Hillman says.

Minnesota, which has a more dire state budget picture, has experienced a number of tuition increases at public universities in recent years.

“Now with the economy the way it is, people are examining all their options,” says Bryan Herrmann, director of admissions at the University of Minnesota, Morris. “We do see competition from neighboring states. But looking at the value of the education we provide, we still feel we are providing a high value to students. Being part of the University of Minnesota system gives us huge benefits and students here often end up paying half what it costs to attend a private liberal arts college.”


Universities in the region have also broadened their horizons, recruiting more out-of-state students, bolstering international student programs and increasing distance education and online enrollments of students from across the nation and world.

Higher education officials say recruiting more new students from farther away is crucial to colleges’ long-term viability and also aids in economic development efforts and state population trends.

Warner of the South Dakota Board of Regents says South Dakota is reversing its position, going from a net exporter as recently as 2006 to now being a net importer of college graduates and highly-skilled workers.

“We make out-of-state tuition attractive and we import students from out of state,” Warner says, mentioning that the over 65 age group is the one projected to grow the fastest in the state. “In order to have an adequate future labor supply in the state, we need to import students from other states.”

Out-of-state residents comprised 42 percent of the students in the North Dakota University System last fall, dominated by Minnesotans, who alone made up nearly a quarter of the students enrolled at North Dakota’s 11 public universities. Out of state residents made up nearly 29 percent of the students at South Dakota public universities last fall. Conversely, approximately 73 percent of the students enrolled at four-year colleges in Minnesota in the fall of 2008 were Minnesota residents, with 16 percent coming from neighboring states with tuition reciprocity agreements.

Welsh says South Dakota State’s percentage of out-of-state students has increased from about 30 percent before 2002 to closer to 35 percent today. She says the university has had recent success in attracting students from farther away from its traditional base of South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa, including recruiting gains in Nebraska, Wisconsin and Illinois. “Our base is always going to be South Dakota students,” Welsh says. But she adds that some areas such as Chicago have turned out to be fertile recruiting grounds for students seeking particular academic programs and lower tuition.


With aging population trends and the need for more continuing education and re-training in the workforce, states have placed more emphasis on attracting non-traditional students and creating flexible programs for working professionals.

“Increasingly, individuals are coming back to renew their knowledge base and take additional classes to stay current in their discipline,” says Richard McCallum, president of Dickinson State University, who says the university’s part-time student population has more than doubled in the last decade. “This is part of the changing face of higher education across the nation.”

More than one quarter of the students in the North Dakota University System last fall were 25 or older and 16 percent were between the ages of 25 and 34.

“We’re seeing more and more students coming from the workforce into college,” says Bismarck State College’s Skogen. “Skills change so rapidly that students are coming back to us to retool. That will continue in the future as skill sets need to keep up with the times and the needs of employers.”

Warner of the South Dakota Board of Regents says he expects an increase in adult non-traditional students to help make up for projected decreases in college age residents.

“People don’t enter the workforce out of college, stay in one job for 40 years and then retire anymore,” Hillman says. “We’re all going to have to be increasingly technologically competent to retain jobs and help businesses stay viable. The workforce is so dynamic these days that there is an increasing need to continue adding skills.”

In addition to online and night classes, university centers in Sioux Falls, Rapid City and Pierre, SD, have helped cater to older working students, those with families and students who live in cities where some on campus college programs aren’t offered. Warner credits the state’s university centers for helping to increase access to higher education and for helping to produce enrollment increases.


While a number of colleges, universities and community colleges in the region have posted gaudy enrollment increases in recent years, higher education officials say their focus remains on consistent, sustainable growth in student enrollment.

North Dakota State University’s fall enrollment has shot up by nearly 5,000 students in the last decade, but new university president Dean Bresciani says the university will be careful about how aggressively it grows in the future to make sure it doesn’t outgrow its infrastructure or sacrifice quality.

“We are going to have to look at enrollment carefully,” Bresciani says. “We need to look at the quality of experience we are providing students. Those goals may be well served by enrollment continuing to increase or we may need to be more careful about that in the future. We will be more purposeful about growth.”

Bresciani says its too early to predict the university’s future enrollment goals.

“Before there was a lot of capacity for NDSU to grow,” he says. “We are in a very different position than the university was in 10-15 years ago. We are at a very good juncture to see what the right size is for NDSU and how we can best provide for our students.”

A number of universities in the region are preparing for slow, manageable enrollment growth.

The University of Minnesota, Morris had a total enrollment of 1,705 last fall, a 6 percent jump from fall 2008 and a 9 percent increase from fall 2006.

“We’ve been pretty steady. The last few years we’ve had enrollment growth,” says Herrmann, the university’s admissions director. “We’re planning for incremental growth. We’re not trying to be a huge campus.”

Bemidji State University, St. Cloud State University, Southwest Minnesota State University and the University of Minnesota, Crookston all saw annual enrollment increases of between 3.5 percent and 6.1 percent last fall.

Augustana College’s enrollment grew by 2 percent last fall to 1,795. The Sioux Falls-based private college also posted a freshman-sophomore retention rate of 82.2 percent last fall — the school’s second-highest total in the last decade and the fourth-highest rate since the college began tracking the statistic in 1975.

Many colleges and universities from throughout the region have strategic growth plans in place that call for steady future enrollment increases and attempt to avoid growing too fast.

“It’s a balancing act,” says Dakota State University’s Crissinger. “If you grow too fast, you need the resources to catch up with you. Our strategic plan focuses on providing academic programs that both students and businesses want.”