NDSU's declining enrollment parallels trend across US

As competition increases for attracting students, universities are trying to find ways to increase their populations. That includes analyzing demographics, diversifying offerings and targeting nontraditional students, experts say.

Students walk across campus Friday, Sept. 10, 2021, at North Dakota State University. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

FARGO — Enrollment at North Dakota State University has been going down in the last several years, but it isn’t alone.

NDSU’s student population is likely to drop for the seventh year in a row, according to preliminary numbers. If numbers hold, the school will record its lowest enrollment in 15 years.

There are a lot of factors that influence enrollment numbers, and each school has different challenges, said Patrick Lane, vice president of policy analysis and research at the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, or WICHE.

“If we did have the answers for why enrollment fluctuates at any particular institution, we could make a lot of money,” Lane said.


One theme emerged when The Forum spoke to school leaders about problems in enrollment: competition.

“Competition for higher education has just been increasing steadily across the country,” said Melony Linder, University of North Dakota vice president of marketing and communications.

NDSU is following a national trend of declining enrollment in the U.S. Postsecondary enrollment dropped 2.5% in the fall of 2020, according to the National Student Clearing House Research Center. That’s also about 13% down from 2011.

“As national enrollment starts to slump, institutions start to compete more heavily for out-of-state students,” said Laura Oster-Aaland, vice provost for student affairs and enrollment management at NDSU.

On top of that, the coronavirus pandemic has negatively impacted enrollment in the U.S. and caused uncertainty in trends, Lane said.

“I think everybody’s on the edge of their seats waiting to see what the next round of enrollment numbers look like to get a sense of where the pandemic is pushing students,” Lane said.

The Forum analyzed 20 years of enrollment data for NDSU and seven other universities, mostly land-grant and research institutions, comparable in size in the Great Plains. NDSU was not alone in facing the challenge of attracting students.

Some pointed to a drop in high school graduation in some states as the culprit of a shrinking market, but first-year students are only one segment of college enrollment, University of Nebraska at Omaha Chancellor Joanne Li said.


UNO’s goal is to serve a community by providing and keeping talent, as well as giving diverse populations a quality education they may not otherwise be able to afford, she said.

That includes attracting students who want to upgrade their skills, or nontraditional students who may already be in the workforce, she said. COVID-19 has presented challenges, but it also could be an opportunity to update how schools deliver education, Li said.

“Learning is a continuous business,” she said.

North Dakota vs. the US

Population trends vary from state to state, WICHE senior research analyst Colleen Falkenstern said. North Dakota is an example of, at times, going in the opposite direction of the rest of the country, she said.

The U.S. has been graduating more and more high school students every year since the mid-1990s. More than 3.8 million students graduated from high school in 2019, up from 2.46 million about 25 years prior, according to WICHE.

Meanwhile, North Dakota’s high school graduation counts have been on a downward trend since 2009, when it had 7,717 graduates. WICHE projected it would drop to 7,003 students in 2018. North Dakota, overall, saw a drop in enrollment over the last decade.

Enrollment for NDSU and UND climbed dramatically in the 2000s and early 2010s, before an oil boom started to fade in the mid-2010s.

A decline in high school graduates in some other states also means colleges sought out-of-state students at a greater rate, Linder said.


Minnesota especially became competitive by offering more financial aid to out-of-state students, Oster-Aaland said. On top of that, NDSU’s graduation rate has increased 17% since 2010, she said.

“That's something we have strategically focused on at NDSU, but that means fewer students in the pipeline,” she said.

But high school graduation could begin to climb in North Dakota, thanks to a baby boom other states haven't seen, Lane said. National high school graduation numbers are expected to drop after 2025, but North Dakota could continue to climb into 2032, according to WICHE.

Oster-Aaland noted 2018 and 2019 had smaller freshman classes for NDSU, but first-year students increased over the past two two years.

“These are really good indicators that we're still attracting students who are finding our experience competitive,” she said.

Strategies in enrollment

Not all schools The Forum analyzed have been struggling. UNO has climbed 12% in enrollment from 2001 to 15,892 students in 2020.

Li acknowledged UNO is an urban university. The city of Omaha has close to 500,000 residents, while North Dakota is more rural.

Some initiatives UNO has tried include giving free tuition to students who come from families who make less than $60,000 a year, freezing tuition prices over the last two years, focusing on retention and removing barriers for nontraditional students, Li said.


The University of Idaho was on a downward trend starting in 2012, but that started to turn around after Dean Kahler came to the school in 2016 as the vice provost for strategic enrollment management. Enrollment went from 11,372 in 2015 to 12,072 in 2017.

He said there are dozens of things Idaho is doing to improve enrollment, especially looking at pricing and better marketing strategies to attract students.

“We're doing really, really well with our value message, and it’s resonating really well with folks,” Kahler said.

Enrollment leveled off until last year, when the pandemic brought enrollment down to a 10-year low of 10,791.

“We took a hit there,” he said. “This fall, we’re up substantially, so I think we’ve got it turned around. I think our future’s looking pretty good for a while now.”

He declined to give fall numbers since they won’t be officially available until Oct. 15.

UND appears to have broken its downward trend. It reported 13,545 students for its first-day fall enrollment, down from last year’s official count of 13,615. It was going down from 15,250 students in 2012 until 2019, when numbers leveled out.

UND was dealing with several factors that could impact its attractiveness, including the retirement of the Fighting Sioux nickname in 2012 and cutting its women’s hockey program in 2017, said Janelle Kilgore, vice provost for strategic enrollment management.


The Grand Forks school is trying to diversify its enrollment portfolio to include more online and graduate students, she said. They started to take a deep look into who is coming to UND and what academic offerings they want, she said.

NDSU and UND made moves to eliminate application fees, forgo ACT and SAT scores and remove other barriers in accessing higher education, the schools said. Scholarships and other forms of financial aid have also been utilized.

NDSU tried to market to both parents and students, as well as look at how to cater to different demographics, Oster-Aaland said. There's also a focus on easing the process for transfer students, she said.

UND started to become a leader in offering online classes before the pandemic, Linder said. That helped it provide a quality hybrid and online experience that heightened confidence in students, she added.

“We were really ahead of the pack when it came to that,” she said.

There is a place for online education at NDSU, but the university remains focused on its in-person experience, Oster-Aaland said.

April Baumgarten joined The Forum in February 2019 as an investigative reporter. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, N.D., where her family raises Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at the University of Jamestown, N.D.
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