MANKATO — Minnesota State University’s enrollment grew by 307 students to 14,604 this fall, keeping MSU as the second-largest traditional university in the state behind the University of Minnesota.

The 2.1% increase is particularly impressive in pandemic-impacted 2020, when even holding steady was impossible for all but five of the 37 state-owned community colleges, technical schools and universities in Minnesota, according to figures provided to The Free Press by the system office.

Of the seven universities in the system, which doesn’t include the University of Minnesota campuses, Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall was the only other school to see more students this fall. SMSU saw a 0.6% rise (39 students) to reach a total headcount of 6,776.

Overall, enrollment in the universities dropped by 3.6%, led by a nearly 11% plunge at St. Cloud State. Once the enrollment leader among the state schools, St. Cloud is now down to 11,281 students after declining by 1,326 compared to the fall of 2019. Bemidji State’s 4,511 students are down nearly 8% and Winona State’s student body of 7,124 is down 6.5%.

There’s good news and bad news for the top two campuses in the separately-governed University of Minnesota system. The number of students on the Twin Cities campus grew 1.3% to 52,017 this fall, while there was a 5.3% decline to 10,275 at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

A happy finale

The report was clearly gratifying to MSU President Richard Davenport, who is in his final year leading the university.

“We’re proud to let prospective students know that this a special place, where they can develop their ‘big ideas’ and use ‘real-world thinking’ to make our world better for all,” Davenport said in a statement.

Under Davenport, MSU has implemented an aggressive marketing and recruitment strategy, is working to boost retention rates of students after they enroll, and continues to be successful in attracting international students to Mankato.

“Enrollment success is the result of hard work by many people at the university,” Davenport said, singling out Vice President David Jones, who focuses on enrollment, and Vice President Lynn Akey, who oversees retention.

“But all of our faculty, staff and administration, as well as our alumni and the greater community, have contributed to make Minnesota State University, Mankato a place where students can achieve their educational goals.”

Small decline for SCC

The enrollment collapse in Minnesota’s two-year colleges and technical schools was even more pronounced than at the universities — 5.8% — with nine schools seeing the number of students fall by 11% or more.

Tiny Rainy River Community College in International Falls, which now has just 172 students, dropped 18%. Five of those two-year schools experienced a plunge of 500 students or more, lead by St. Paul College (-866) and Duluth’s Lake Superior College (-735).

South Central College, which has campuses in North Mankato and Faribault, did better than most of its peers. Enrollment dropped 3.9% from a year ago to 2,629.

St. Cloud decline worsens

The continued shrinking of St. Cloud State might be the most striking trend in Minnesota’s higher education community. In 1990, SCSU had an enrollment of more than 17,000, and as recently as 2009 MSU was nearly 3,000 students smaller. Winona and Minnesota State University-Moorhead placed third and fourth among the seven state universities.

But with the number of high school graduates dipping, it’s been a rough decade for three of those four schools.

MSU became the system’s largest university in 2018, and there are now 3,323 more Mavericks than Huskies. Metropolitan State University has moved into third place with a headcount of more than 7,500. Southwest, with 6,776 students, is just 348 behind Winona. Moorhead (5,548) has fallen to sixth place, ahead of only Bemidji.

MSU, meanwhile, was virtually stable over the decade. That’s largely been the case for 18 years, a period that matches the tenure of Davenport, who is retiring at the end of this academic year.

Enrollment was 13,795 in Davenport’s first year, climbed above 14,000 the following year and has not dropped below that mark since.

MSU’s numbers in detail

The new class of first-year students at MSU is 2,284 — the university’s 11th-largest in its 152-year history. The number of graduate students this fall is 1,839.

The student body’s diversity is also continuing to increase.

American students of color represent 18% of overall enrollment at MSU, and international students represent another 8%.

MSU students come from all 50 states, Puerto Rico and 96 other nations. Although international student numbers are down 63 from a year ago, the number of nations represented is up from 90.

The 1,172 coming from outside the United States are led by those from Nepal (120), Ethiopia (113), Saudi Arabia (112), Ivory Coast (97) and South Korea (78).

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