By Anna Landsverk
For the second year running, MSUM saw a slight increase in new student enrollment; the domestic freshmen class increased by 2.64 percent, while the international freshmen class decreased by around 50 percent.
While the increase in overall enrollment is encouraging, the drops in several key populations for the university may make the upward trend unsustainable. In particular, the sharp drops in international enrollment and the steady decline of new transfer students cast a shadow over the increased population for the year.
The “ten-day” numbers, which are the first benchmark for the incoming class, show there are 815 new domestic freshmen this year, up from 794 in fall of 2016. The Office of Admissions is still waiting for the official 30-day number to confirm those statistics. For now, they are celebrating the increase.
“We’ve seen growth this year and the year before, and we’re enjoying that opportunity,” new Office of Admissions director Tom Reburn said. He joined the office in June. “Never-ending growth is not always the goal, but the university does have the eye on the future to what is a truly sustainable number and a good, healthy place for us to be.”
That “healthy place,” according to Reburn, is around 7,500 students on campus, including freshmen, transfers, upperclassmen, international students, graduate students and special case students. He cited a press conference President Blackhurst made referring to that number as the long-term goal for the university. Reburn is optimistic about MSUM’s expansion.
“I think growth is definitely attainable right now,” Reburn said. “We’re well-positioned to look at that opportunity and see where we can increase. It’s not something that you go from this year to next year—it’s a consistent and steady uphill battle.”
However, there are other areas of enrollment that are concerning to the larger university. International student recruitment trends are especially worrying.
“Well, we’ve dropped probably in half,” Director of International Student Services (ISS) Janet Hohenstein said. “I don’t have our exact number for you, but our normal fall semester of students … is around 100 to 120, and this year we had about 60.”
The ISS office believes the drop is due in large part to the presidential election and the political uncertainty that followed.
“I really don’t know except what I hear from our students that have applied or tried to apply, or friends of friends that are here,” Hohenstein said. “And the word is that they probably won’t be applying to the United States, at least these people—the students that we’ve talked to—and they’re looking at Japan, Canada, UK, and Australia/New Zealand.”
Since ISS relies mostly on online communication with potential international students, Hohenstein said it will be hard to convince students abroad that MSUM or even the U.S. is the right place to be.
“It’s not just our university; it’s the United States’ universities,” Hohenstein said.
One way to circumvent that problem is to have current international students talk highly of the university.
“(Word of mouth) is a big way to recruit, which is nice for us because it doesn’t cost us anything,” Hohenstein said. “So the more students you have from one area, the more they’re telling people, right?” She explained this is why large numbers of international students are from the same country or region. As of 2016, the top two countries are Nepal and Nigeria with 103 and 56 students, respectively, out of the total number of 416 international students.
For now, the ISS office is carrying on with their current strategy but are not expecting international enrollment to pick up any time soon.
“When I started here back in 2001, our total international population was about 100-110 students,” Hohenstein said. “Since then, it has been slowly climbing slowly—not en masse—but we’ve always seen an increase in enrollment. Our highest enrollment was probably a couple years ago at around the 420 mark, somewhere in there (for the university as a whole). So now it’s going down.”
Another area of slowing enrollment is domestic transfers, particularly students moving from community colleges to four-year universities.
“There’s been a bit of a decline in the past couple years of the number of students coming in from community colleges,” Reburn said. “(It’s) not unique to us as a university … Nationally, less students are coming from community colleges to four-year schools.”
Reburn cited the reverse correlation with the job market as one reason students might decide to stick with a community college degree, among other unknown factors.
So moving forward, what do the enrollment offices plan to do to increase enrollment numbers and hit that magic 7,500 students?
“Obviously some of the main things are community outreach through attending college fairs,” Reburn said. “We also do a lot of visits out to community colleges and high schools.”
The undergraduate office is also focusing on targeting high school students even sooner, since many juniors are already researching and have a good idea of where they want to apply. They are looking at students from surrounding states, since nearly 71 percent of MSUM students are from Minnesota, and communicating with high schoolers in every way possible. From texting and calling to Twitter and Instagram, recruiters are trying to reach out through the mediums that high school students use the most.
The ISS office is playing a much longer game as it tries to court international students.
“About two years ago, we went to China. (Provost Joseph) Bessie created a group and we went to China to talk about some 2+2 programs. We also at that time started working on an English language program,” Hohenstein said.
She noted that both programs will take years to be fully implemented, but the English language program has been approved by the Minnesota State system and can be now marketed.
“They say in the admissions world that if you’re going to try and change things in marketing or whatever, to create something, you’re looking at—if you’re going to do it—a three to five-year period,” Hohenstein said.
So, while the ISS office hopes these programs will increase international interest, it won’t help in the short term. Given the uncertainties in certain areas of enrollment, it is hard to say whether the upward trend will continue.
“Predictions can only get us so far,” Reburn said. “There isn’t an expectation that there’ll be quite as drastic of changes as we saw maybe in the last five years. That’s not to say that’s not impossible that that would happen.”