NDSU matches Minnesota’s free college tuition in fight over declining enrollment

College enrollment continues to decline in most institutions of higher education on both sides of the Red River in the Fargo-Moorhead region. The steady erosion of enrollment on college campuses started a decade ago and shows little sign of letting up any time soon, according to figures tabulated by Inforum.

North Dakota State University reports a fall 2023 headcount of 11,952 students, a continued steady decline from fall 2019 when 13,173 total students were enrolled.

Seinquis Leinen, senior director of strategic enrollment management, said the last time NDSU was below 12,000 students was before she joined the university in 2014…

Across the Red River, Minnesota State University Moorhead and Concordia College have also experienced slow, steady declines in enrollment over the last five years.

Thirty days into the school year, MSUM reports 4,379 total students, down from 5,751 from the same period in 2019.

One outlier in the area, however, stands apart from the competition between campuses. The University of North Dakota in Grand Forks has managed not only to avoid losing hundreds of students, but to actually increase enrollment over five straight years.

Janelle Kilgore, vice provost for strategic enrollment management at UND, said higher education enrollment nationwide peaked in 2011 and has been slowly declining since.

But she said they’ve worked hard over the last five years to examine internal processes and remove any possible barriers standing in the way of students enrolling at UND.

UND has also invested heavily in online education, with many students taking advantage of a hybrid approach, where some classes are in person and some online, while others may be fully online but still living in the community.

Yet North Dakota colleges and universities face a new threat to enrollment out of the blue. The free college tuition program passed by the DFL-controlled Minnesota Legislature for families earning under $80,000 threatens to interrupt the consistent flow of Minnesota high school graduates to North Dakota campuses. NDSU in particular views Minnesota’s desperate “Northstar Promise” giveaway to stem the outflow of students as a red line of sorts, according to the AP.

North Dakota State University President David Cook has spoken of “catastrophic implications” due to North Star Promise. North Dakota State is the No. 1 out-of-state choice for first-year Minnesota students, who make up nearly half its student body. The Fargo-based university is just across the Red River from Minnesota.

As a result, NDSU has unveiled a similar so-called scholarship program that will kick off at the same time as Minnesota’s, the fall of 2024. But the $3.5 million program will be funded by the NDSU Foundation, not state taxpayers as in Minnesota.

The Tuition Award Program came about because of North Star Promise, confirmed Seinquis Leinen, the university’s senior director of strategic enrollment management.

The new scholarship is available to North Dakota and Minnesota first- and second-year students who are eligible for the federal Pell Grant and whose family income is $80,000 or less — nearly identical to North Star Promise.

NDSU estimates 1,000 students could benefit from the tuition program. Unlike the Northstar Promise, both North Dakota and Minnesota enrollees will be eligible. The stakes involved go well beyond the fight between campuses for a dwindling number of students.

State leaders view higher education as a key component to addressing North Dakota’s labor shortage. Eighty-two percent of North Dakotans and 42% of Minnesotans who graduate from North Dakota State pursue their first job in North Dakota, Leinen said.