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What happened to University of N. Dakota's freshman numbers?

GRAND FORKS -- Freshman enrollment at the University of North Dakota is at its lowest in the past five years, with 19 percent fewer first-year students this fall compared with 2012, and university officials say the reason is broader than their previous claims of a more selective admissions process.

Unofficial data from the university show that fewer students are applying to study at UND and, of those admitted, fewer chose to enroll.

The university received 4,735 applications this year, the second-lowest total in five years. Of the 3,362 UND eventually accepted, 57 percent decided to enroll, the lowest rate in five years.

UND spokesman Peter Johnson said the university is "satisfied" with the rate, especially since it's higher than the national average. More students around the country are applying to more colleges, according to a university administrator in charge of admissions.

Besides selective admissions, Johnson and other university officials say freshman enrollment this year has been affected by the lower amount of federal loans available and fewer scholarships, among other factors.

And, he said, comparisons with last fall somewhat exaggerates this fall's declining freshman enrollment because last fall was a banner year. He said he's unsure why so many freshmen came to UND last fall.

Compared with fall 2011, there are 8.8 percent fewer freshmen this fall.

GPAs, test scores

UND's greater selectiveness appears to have not had much of an impact on ACT scores and grade-point averages.

When enrollment numbers were released two weeks ago, Johnson said this fall's freshman class had the highest combined ACT scores and GPAs in "years." But, at least in the past five years, those two numbers have not varied significantly.

Average ACT scores have ranged from 23.3 in 2009 to 23.6 this fall -- that's a 1.3 percent improvement.

Average GPAs have ranged from 3.33 in 2012 to 3.38 in 2009. This fall, it was 3.36.

Johnson said he meant to compare this fall's "combined overall" scores with last fall's, not other years.

What UND means by selectiveness is in how it deals with so-called "provisional students." These are the students whom the university believes will need additional help to reach their degrees.

In February, the university stopped offering provisional admission to those who didn't meet criteria and required them to make an appeal if they disagreed, according to an internal document from UND's admissions office.

"Considerable research demonstrated that enrolled provisional students had significantly lower retention and graduation rates, as well as a lower cumulative GPA from UND coursework," the document said.

This fall, UND admitted 89 percent of the 351 provisional students that applied. That's a bit lower than the 92 percent admitted in 2012 but still a lot higher than the 82 percent admitted in 2009.

UND wants to focus on the quality, not the quantity, of students, Johnson said.

"Getting the numbers is easy if you drop the standards," he said. "But the question becomes, is that the best thing for an institution? We believe, and the state board believes, that for the University of North Dakota, it's better to have higher admission standards."

'Pretty high'

As for the 57 percent overall enrollment rate, Sol Jensen, assistant vice president for admissions and financial aid, said it's "still pretty high" considering the nationwide average is around 35 to 40 percent.

For UND, the five-year high was 66 percent in 2009.

At Fargo's North Dakota State University, the state's other research university, that rate has remained mostly at 49 percent but rose this fall to 52 percent, said Jobey Lichtblau, director of admissions.

Freshman enrollment has been fairly steady in the past five years, ranging from 2,400 to this fall's 2,553, according to NDSU data.

The number of applicants ranged from 4,685 to 5,180 this fall, which was the highest in five years.

Other reasons

Other factors affecting freshman enrollment at UND include reductions in grants and scholarships, according to Jensen.

The discontinuation of two national student grant programs resulted in the loss of more than $1 million in federal aid this fall while UND also ended the Community of Learners Scholarship Program, which typically provided more than $500,000 each year to students since it was first offered in 2008, he said.

Jensen, who started working for UND in January, said that, in the future, the university wants to expand its scholarship programs both in the number and amounts offered.

Another reason for the decline in freshman enrollment could be the change in North Dakota's population trends, he said.

The number of high school graduates in the state is expected to decline until after 2018, according to a 2012 report by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, a regional organization that reports on higher education systems in 15 states. Historically, the population of North Dakota students attending UND has been the second largest, with the number of Minnesota students the largest at more than 50 percent, Jensen said.

Bigger picture

Still, Johnson said this fall's declining freshman enrollment should be viewed as part of the bigger picture.

While the number of freshmen fell by 449 between last fall and this fall, the number of graduate students rose by 666, he said.

Total enrollment at 15,143 was 0.7 percent lower than last fall.

"In the grand scheme of things, particularly when matched against the rest of the institution, those (freshmen) numbers are definitely manageable," Johnson said.