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Regional colleges work to make up enrollment losses

Fall has officially settled on the Red River Valley—and so too have college students.

Official and unofficial enrollment data show an uneven picture across the region. In Traill County, Mayville State University is recording a 1 percent increase to bring the school to a total of about 1,140 students, a number university leaders say is continued evidence of a multiyear pattern of growth.

Across the river, leaders at the University of Minnesota-Crookston report unofficial enrollment projections of 1,790 students, a drop of about 30 from the same time last year. But it's at Northland Community and Technical College in East Grand Forks that falling student enrollments are being seen most clearly. Though the president of the community college says the classrooms still feel full, the college's headcounts have likely fallen by as much as 7 percent to land at their current enrollment of about 3,223.

NCTC President Dennis Bona said he was optimistic despite the decline. Bona cited generational trends, a strong regional economy and increasing competition in higher education as factors that have been recently pushing down on the college's enrollments.

"It keeps us sharp," he said of the drop. "It forces us to examine everything, our programs, services, everything we're offering—and that's a good thing. I don't feel as if we're dropping off the cliff here."

The current enrollment number would put NCTC at the same approximate levels it was seeing in 2008, Bona said. The college experienced rapid growth in enrollment during the national recession, a trend Bona said was common for technical schools where workers can brush up on hard skills to make themselves more competitive in job markets. After hitting a peak enrollment of about 4,500 students, NCTC's headcounts steadily declined as the economy improved. Bona was still somewhat surprised with this semester's count, as he said school leaders believed they had reached a new equilibrium last year. Even though their numbers were less than expected, he thought the college remained adequately staffed and able to be "nimble" in responding to the training needs of local employers.

Early enrollment numbers were also less than hoped for at UMC. Andrew Svec, the university's director of communications and public relations, made sure to emphasize the fall projection of 1,790 students was just that—a projection. The school will release an official headcount in mid-October in sync with the state system, but Svec said the early estimate is usually accurate within a range of about 10 students greater or fewer.

"We've hovered around 1,800 degree-seeking students," since Fall 2012, Svec said. According to enrollment data, UMC notched a high mark in Fall 2014 with 1,876 students before gradually contracting to 1,821 last year.

"Good enrollment is vitally important to our campus as it is to many small colleges and universities," Svec said. "I think we were hoping to be a bit higher, but considering that we're still roughly in that 1,800 enrollment situation, it's probably good."

Still, he said the university had been budgeting for about 1,820 students and, as a result, was "down a little bit from where we were hoping to be."

The university is now working to manage some projected budget deficit, Svec said, but shouldn't face any major issues as it plans ahead to its next wave of recruitment efforts.

The slight fall at UMC is similar to the overall decline in UND's total enrollment, meaning that Mayville State is the only local institution to buck the trend.

Andrew Pflipsen, MSU vice president for student affairs, said the university's enrollment has been steadily climbing since about 2009 when there were roughly 887 students. An MSU press release says this is the seventh enrollment record set in the past eight years.

Pflipsen was pleased with the level of growth.

"There's a lot of good things happening at Mayville State," he said.

Pflipsen said the breakdown between classes is about the same as in past years, with 131 new freshmen and 43 graduate students. Off-campus, the school has about 306 students pursuing degrees online.

"I think we're excited to see where we're going not only with the rate of growth but with the new opportunities we're able to provide students," Pflipsen said.

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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