Aerial of MSU

MANKATO — The number of students at Minnesota State University did not increase this fall, but enrollment was nearly steady — something of a victory in a state college system that saw its overall numbers drop by nearly 10,000.

MSU had 14,546 students enrolled for at least one course this fall, down 0.4% from the 14,604 enrolled at the same point in 2020. Only Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall had a smaller decline — 0.1% (10 fewer students).

All seven of the universities in the Minnesota State system faced declining enrollments this year, according to figures provided Tuesday by the system.

St. Cloud State, once the largest school in the system, had the biggest drop in numbers. SCSU’s enrollment is 10,398 — a drop of 883 from a year ago. Minnesota State University-Moorhead had the steepest percentage decline in enrollment at 8.5%, but Metropolitan State (-8%), Winona State (-7.9%) and St. Cloud (-7.8%) were just behind. Bemidji State saw enrollment fall 5.6%, and the seven universities overall combined for a 4.9% decline in students.

A few of Minnesota’s 30 community and technical colleges have more students in the 2021-22 school year, but the institutions overall fared even worse than the state universities — 6.4% fewer students. Only seven of the colleges saw enrollments rise.

South Central College, with campuses in North Mankato and Faribault, nearly matched the overall system with a 6.5% drop — 2,457 students this fall compared to 2,629 at the same point in the 2020-21 school year.

Pine Technical and Community College in Pine City was the biggest outlier among the two-year schools with 8.9% enrollment growth. On the opposite end of the list, Riverland Community College in Albert Lea faced the most precipitous decline of any state college or university at 14.2 percent.

Across all 37 state colleges and universities, enrollment fell 9,622 students to 153,558 — the continuation of a trend carrying back a decade.

Three factors largely explain it, said David Jones, MSU’s vice president of student affairs and enrollment management. Demographic trends mean fewer high school graduates in many regions of the United States, including the Upper Midwest. Of the students graduating, a lower percentage are going to college than in the past. And among the Minnesota high school graduates going to college, a smaller share of that group is choosing an in-state school.

The latter factor is largely a reflection that some other states are facing even more dire demographic trends, so their colleges are recruiting Minnesota aggressively because of its relatively stable population, helped in part by a healthy population of new Americans and a tradition of creating college-ready high school graduates.

“Minnesota has a fairly good reputation for its K-12 system, so it makes sense they’d want to come and look at Minnesota students,” Jones said.

That poaching by universities from elsewhere in the Midwest and beyond is particularly apparent in the metro area.

“You’ll see more out-of-state university billboards than you’ve ever seen before, whether it’s Iowa State or Arizona State,” he said. “There’s a lot of them.”

MSU’s success in bucking the trend is not new. The system of state universities and colleges has seen enrollment plunge about 20% since 2011 while MSU has managed to hold that to -2%. Why the disparity?

“I think the quality of our programs,” Jones said. “And the beauty of and the partnerships with our two communities really make it an attractive place to come and study.”

MSU is expanding its lead as the largest of the Minnesota State system of colleges and universities. A dozen years ago, St. Cloud had 3,000 more students than MSU. Now, MSU has 4,000 more than St. Cloud.

The headcount ranking of the universities in the system is: No. 1 — MSU (14,456); No. 2 — SCSU (10,398); No. 3 — Metropolitan State (6,958); No. 4 — Southwest Minnesota State (6,766); No. 5 — Winona State (6,564); No. 6 — MSU-Moorhead (5,079); No. 7 — Bemidji State (4,259).

The drop in the rankings has been most pronounced for Winona and Moorhead, which were the third and fourth largest in 2009.

MSU has seen a significant drop in the number of students arriving at the university by the most traditional route — picking MSU as their first college after previously only attending high school. That category is down by more than 300 from a year ago.

But the number of students at MSU who transferred to Mankato after first attending college elsewhere has held steady. The number of high school students taking Post Secondary Enrollment Option classes at MSU is up dramatically from 668 in 2019 to 863 in 2021.

And MSU is doing well in its graduate school enrollment — 1,967 this fall, up from 1,839 a year earlier.

The university also continues to be popular with international students, who represent 1 in 11 Mavericks. Among the 1,277 students from more than 90 nations around the world, 379 are new to MSU this year, according to statistics provided by Dan Benson, MSU’s director of media relations.

Ethiopia (201) easily has the largest international presence on the campus, followed by Nepal (140), Saudi Arabia (117), South Korea (97), Ivory Coast (85) and India (71).

The diversity of American students attending MSU is also growing. Domestic students of color now represent 18% of the student body.

While MSU is the largest of the system of state colleges and universities, it remains in second place among public universities overall in Minnesota, trailing the Twin Cities campus of the separately governed University of Minnesota system. The U of M’s main campus has a headcount of 52,376 this fall, up 59 from the fall of 2020, according to the U’s Office of Institutional Research.

Other campuses in the U of M system saw falling enrollment, including Duluth’s 9,884 (-391), Crookston’s 2,304 (-226) and Morris’ 1,286 (-53).

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