Disturbing Enrollment Trends in the Minnesota State University System
by Silence Dogood

A post last fall to the SCSU Discussion list gave the enrollments for the seven Minnesota State Universities and the projected enrollments for FY2019, FY2020, and FY2021. NOTE: The current 2018-2019 academic year is FY2019.

Except for Metropolitan State University, enrollment for all the universities is clearly trending downward. However, the data shows some universities are declining a lot faster than others.

The data contained in the table above can be overwhelming to process making it somewhat difficult to see the whole enrollment picture. If we take the actual enrollment for FY2010 as the starting point and compare it to the projected FY2019 enrollment (for which summer is in the books; at the time the projection was made in October, fall semester was essentially complete and registration for spring was almost finished), the data is graphically presented in the following figure.

Additionally, SCSU’s enrollment drop is larger than the total enrollment of either Bemidji State University or Southwest State University. If the current trend continues for another 667 FYE, the enrollment drop at SCSU will exceed the total enrollment at Minnesota State University Moorhead as well. Since SCSU likes to compare itself with MSU—Mankato, it is also interesting to note that SCSU’s enrollment drop is more than seven times larger than Mankato’s.

In FY2010, SCSU’s FYE enrollment was 758 larger than MSU-Mankato. In FY2019, MSU-Mankato’s FYE enrollment is 2,525 larger than SCSU’s! The differential is 3,283 FYE, which is nearly equal to the total enrollment of Southwest Minnesota State University!

Since the universities in the Minnesota State University System are not the same size, using percent measures may give a relative comparison but not accurately illustrate the magnitude of the problem of declining enrollment. The following Table shows the numeric decline in enrollment at each university and how much of the university system’s enrollment decline is due to each university as a percentage of the total decline. NOTE: Metropolitan State University is omitted from the Table because its’ enrollment increased.

The sum of the third column in the Table shows that from FY2010 to the anticipated FY2019 enrollments, the Minnesota State University System’s universities enrollment declined by 8,631 FYE, which corresponds to a decline of 16.45%. From the data in the Table, nearly, 52% of the Minnesota State University system’s enrollment decline is due to St. Cloud State University! That needs to be said again. More than half of the enrollment decline in the Minnesota State University system’s universities is due to one university alone—SCSU! Perhaps, SCSU should not try to be so ‘AMAZING.’

Sometimes a picture is helpful to see the ‘Big Picture.’ When depicted as a pie chart, the enrollment decline in the Minnesota State System Universities attributed to each university is quite spectacular.

Metropolitan State has shown an enrollment growth over this period of 10.37%. Bemidji (-5.02%), Minnesota State University, Mankato (-5.62%), and Southwest Minnesota State University (-8.27%)–all show declines less than 10% over this same time. Winona State University is next with a decline of 17.36%, followed by Minnesota State University, Moorhead with a 23.69% decline. However, St. Cloud State University stands out from the pack with a whopping decline of 29.62%!

In a nine-year period, St. Cloud State University has lost nearly 30% of its FYE enrollment!

The big red section in the Figure is the percentage of the enrollment decline in Minnesota State System Universities due to St. Cloud State University.

Some see this as a problem. Others just call it ‘Fake News.’ The administration of the Minnesota State System and SCSU’s administration has explained SCSU’s enrollment decline over the past few years by first saying it wasn’t real. Then, saying that it was due to “Right Sizing.” This was then followed by blaming “Demographics.” This are just the ‘big three’, the actual list of excuses, however, is much longer.

The first step in solving a problem is to admit that you have a problem. Otherwise, you are just reacting and blaming external forces for what is happening—both of which have happened a lot at SCSU over the past nine years. Secondly, unless you understand how you got into the situation in the first place, it is very difficult to develop a plan to successfully solve the problem. Rebranding (Unleashing Amazing), “Right Sizing” or reorganizing will not likely solve St. Cloud State’s problems. Essentially, one might just see these efforts as putting ‘lipstick on a pig,’ with apologies to pigs.

Several of the plans by the administration have sounded a lot like the overly optimistic plans of the former Soviet Union. Plans are great. However, unless you assess how your plans have achieved their goals, all you are doing is ‘spin.’ Consider, President Potter repeatedly calling the loss of more than 10 million dollars on the Coborn’s Plaza Apartments a ‘SUCCESS.’

What is needed to solve SCSU’s enrollment decline is a detailed plan with built in assessment AND buy in from the faculty and staff. Simply cutting staff positions, increasing class sizes and teaching loads will not likely accomplish what will be necessary to turn the university around.

It seems that the comics often provide a relevant way to see the logic behind certain actions. The Wizard of ID Comic recently had the following exchange:

Unfortunately, it seems like the administration is continuing denying the reality of the enrollment decline, which for FY2019 may be higher than 7% as well as the significant financial strain that such an enrollment decline places on the financial resources of the university. But more importantly, it seems that the administration is working their ‘alternative math’ to show that the enrollment decline is a good thing. Maybe all the people who have lost their jobs at the university since the reorganization in 2011 might disagree about how good it is. Additionally, the landlords and businesses that were supported by the students that make up those 4,471 FYE that are no longer enrolled might also not see it as a good thing.

At least no one seems to be complaining about not being able to find a parking space! Maybe this enrollment decline is a good thing after all!

2 Responses to “Disturbing enrollment trends at MnSCU”

  • John Palmer says:

    It has been some time since we heard from Silence. Unfortunately during Silence’s silence, enrollment at SCSU and MNState things have only gotten worse. I do hope people with the ability to initiate pressure for improvement at SCSU and MnSTATE will take a look at this excellent commentary and examine Silence’s body of work at this blog. Limbo, a game popular in the 60’s, often included the chant “How low can you go?” That chant has a different meaning when asked in the context of SCSU. How low will enrollment go at SCSU and how much more negative economic news can St. Cloud take?

  • John Smith 2 says:

    The incidental reason for the enrollment slide across the system is the economy improving from the start of the 2008 recession. As more jobs are available high school students and older adult students joined the workforce instead of attending college.

    The bigger problem on the horizon for all of the state universities is as costs to deliver educational programming keep increasing the amount of full time equivalent student funding has decreased over the past decade and fifty years. Other institutions in the region such as NDSU, SDSU, USD, ISU, UND even UNI have become more competitive and implemented research programs. Meanwhile in Minnesota, even the largest SCSU and MNSU have not. Students as a result see these institutions as places of either convenience (it’s nearby), cost (it’s cheap) or a last resort (I didn’t get in at other university x).

    As a result of the squeezing of the financial base, these institutions are not competing well. Even within Minnesota institutions like University of Minnesota, Duluth are more successful. Long term Metro State will continue to grow at the other’s expense merely because of location. In the past middle class students would travel to Mankato or St. Cloud to attend college. Now, in today’s market, it’s becoming a much more difficult value proposition to make when the ‘flagship’ is in the Twin Cities and every student is chasing dreams of big U’.

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