ST. PAUL - Minnesota's high school graduating classes have shrunk in recent years, and fewer of those graduates are entering college right away.

The college-going rate among new high school graduates fell slightly in 2016 for a third straight year to 69.6 percent, according to newly released data from the state Office of Higher Education. The rate topped out at 71.5 percent in 2013.

Still, higher education commissioner Larry Pogemiller sees no cause for alarm.

"We don't think it's statistically significant. We think it's flat, basically," he said.

Only Massachusetts has a higher percentage of residents ages 25-64 with at least an associate degree. Still, Minnesota leaders would like to see more adults earning college credentials to replace the state's aging workforce and attract well-paying employers.

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For a teenager, though, college is a harder sell when low-skill jobs are abundant.

"With the economy going so well, there are going to be a number of people getting jobs right out of high school," Pogemiller said.

His office figures roughly half of those who did not go to college right after high school will enroll by age 24.

A positive sign for employers and policymakers is that high school graduation rates are at an all-time high. Yet, because of larger demographic trends, Minnesota is graduating fewer students. Last year's high school graduating class was 6 percent smaller than that of 2010.

Pogemiller said that smaller pipeline is forcing colleges to focus on getting the students who do show up to the finish line.

"We actually started to change our thinking a little bit," he said. "Anybody who gets to college better graduate."

More immigration would also help employers replace their retiring baby boomers, he added.

State colleges hit hard

The decline in college-bound Minnesota teens has hit the Minnesota State system especially hard. Several of its 37 colleges and universities are under close financial monitoring, largely because enrollment has fallen faster than expected.

Minnesota State enrollment has declined each year since fall 2010 as the U.S. economy has recovered from the Great Recession. Further declines are expected this fall - 2.4 percent at the two-year colleges and 1.1 percent at the universities.

The University of Minnesota system is down less than 1 percent in total enrollment compared with six years ago. While some of the U's out-state universities have struggled, the Twin Cities campus is expected to gain 400 undergraduates this fall.