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Southeast Minnesota colleges, universities see drop in enrollment — again

The pandemic, the economy and declining high school graduates contributed to the drop off, local officials say.

RCTC
Rochester Community and Technical College. Phot Bulletin fire photo
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With one exception, colleges and universities across Southeast Minnesota saw significant declines in student numbers this fall, part of a decade-long drop-off in enrollment, according to figures released by the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.

  • Rochester Community and Technical College declined by 9 percent, to 4,675 students this fall from 5,135 in 2020, a loss of 460 students.
  • Riverland Community College dropped by 14.2 percent, to 2,777 students this fall from 3,238 in 2020, a loss of 461 students.
  • Winona State University fell by 7.9 percent, to 6,564 students this fall from 7,124 students in 2020, a loss of 560 students.
  • Minnesota State College Southeast declined by 2.3 percent, to 1,800 students this fall from 1,842 students, a loss of 42 students.

Higher education officials point to a number of factors for the decline in enrollment: Fewer students graduating from high school; an economy desperate for workers and employers willing to pay more to lure them into jobs; and the continuing impact of the pandemic.
"The big thing is the economy, specifically the job market. There are tons of openings and people are paying a lot, at least in terms of hourly wages, for little to no experience," said RCTC spokesman Nate Stoltman.

Stoltman said the decline may also reflect fatigue among 18-year-old and 19-year-old students who became disillusioned with online education delivered in their last years of high school, leading them to take a break from school.

"They're taking a little breather before they figure out really what they want to do next," Stoltman said. "There are some folks who are thinking, 'I don't want to have to deal with Zoom again.'"

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The decline in student enrollment is a trend affecting all kinds of institutions — public four-year universities, private colleges and for-profit schools — but large, two-year state colleges like RCTC took some of the biggest hits.

One exception to the rule is the University of Minnesota Rochester. The downtown campus saw 2 percent increase in enrollment and is now approaching the 1,000-student mark. The school focuses on health science careers, a subject area that has seen a surge in nationwide interest due to the pandemic.

Universities are pursuing growth strategies in the expanding pool of graduate students. Even as its undergraduate numbers have slid, WSU, for example, has focused on the continued growth of its graduate programs, where enrollment grew 12 percent in the last year, from 716 to 800 students, officials say.

At 14.2 percent, Riverland was one of only two Minnesota colleges to see a double-digit loss in students year-over-year. Riverland President Adenuga Atewologun said he doesn't believe Riverland's decline is as steep as 14 percent. He said the system's numbers, which represent a point in time, fail to capture late-enrolling students in a couple of its programs.

He said many students in Farm Business Management, one of its biggest program, have yet to be enrolled. And due to a realignment in the college's liberal arts classes to match the later-starting K-12 calendar, many Post Secondary Enrollment Option students will enroll later than usual. PSEO students account for 12 percent of the college's enrollment, he said.

"So we haven't captured all these students yet," Atewologun said.

Still, he said, Riverland faces declining enrollment challenges.

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One thing Riverland needs to do better is designing courses for adult learners. He said the college has lost 9 percent of its adult learners over the last several years "even when we were growing." The college also needs to do more niche marketing to specific populations, including minorities.

He noted that mainly technical colleges have not suffered as steep an enrollment decline as comprehensive two-year colleges, which offer liberal arts, science and other transfer programs.

"We have fully enrolled carpentry classes. We have the same thing in our industrial maintenance, machine repair, and diesel machine," Atewologun said. "All these technical courses enroll better this time, because (students) want face-to-face (classes)."

Matthew Stolle has been a Post Bulletin reporter since 2000 and covered many of the beats that make up a newsroom. In his first several years, he covered K-12 education and higher education in Rochester before shifting to politics. He has also been a features writer. Today, Matt jumps from beat to beat, depending on what his editor and the Rochester area are producing in terms of news. Readers can reach Matthew at 507-281-7415 or mstolle@postbulletin.com.
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