Early during the coronavirus pandemic, some predicted dire consequences for higher education. The concern was that many students might choose to ride out the pandemic at home. The problem, of course, would be that the resulting drop in enrollment would create economic hardship for the universities.

But good news: North Dakota’s enrollment is down only slightly, at 2%. As noted in a Herald report last week, the North Dakota University System had 44,938 students enrolled in the 2019 fall semester; this fall, there are 44,001 students attending classes. At UND, the number actually rose slightly, from 13,581 to 13,615.

In Minnesota, the University of Minnesota system is down just 1%. Fall enrollment is 66,793; this fall, it is 67,024.

Nationally, university enrollment is down 2.5%.

It could have been so much worse, and for the communities in which these universities are located, it could have been economically devastating. UND, for instance, has more than 700 regular faculty and 1,700 regular staff and produces an economic impact of millions of dollars to the Greater Grand Forks community and region.

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Breathe a sigh of relief, Grand Forks and North Dakota. Disaster, for now, has been averted.

How so?

Because the economic impact provided by the 11 universities is so vital to state and local finances that a steep drop in student enrollment could be disastrous. According to a 2017 study by North Dakota State University researchers, released in 2018 by the North Dakota University system, the total economic impact of the 11 institutions accounted for $4.1 billion.

Other bullet points from the study:

● NDUS in-state expenditures and subsequent secondary business activity was estimated to generate $132 million in state tax collections. Of that, $83 million was from sales and use taxes and $38 million from individual and corporate income taxes.

● At the time of the study, there were 10,741 full-time equivalent employees within the NDUS.

● Economic impact of student living expenses resulted in $1.1 billion in total business activity, highlighted by $511 million in additional retail trade activity and $275 million in economy-wide personal income.

Dollars should not come before public safety, and the return of students – and in-person education – certainly isn’t without controversy. But it was, and is still, important that in-person education be attempted, not just because we believe it’s best for the students, but also because our economy depends on it.

NDUS Chancellor Mark Hagerott recently told the Herald he is pleased with the system’s numbers this year, considering the pandemic and the economic fallout it caused.

“Considering what we were potentially facing, it’s a huge vote of confidence by parents and students that many, many of them obviously came back,” he said. “Given we've gone through a pandemic and a massive recession ... people should be quite, quite happy with those outcomes.”

Back in April and May, when so much was unknown, it was frightening to think of what could become of higher education in North Dakota. To organize a return to in-person education and to realize enrollment only slightly dipped – and within the range of the national average – was quite an effort.

And in the scope of what could have been, this enrollment decrease is actually good news.