Economy is down, so enrollment is up

Courtney Nussbaume
Courtney Nussbaumer, a freshman at Macalester College in St. Paul, lives in dorm room that used to be a study lounge. The creative housing arrangement is because of a larger than expected freshmen class at Macalester.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Numbers out this week give a mixed picture on enrollment at Minnesota colleges. Most colleges say they saw at least a slight increase in enrollment over last fall. Schools say there's no single reason behind the rise, but the down economy seems to be a factor.

The University of Minnesota's enrollment increased by 2 percent this year compared to last year, bringing the total number of students at the U's three campuses to about 67,000. One reason is that more people are returning to college because they're either out of work or need training.

That's the reason behind this fall's big gains at the state's community and technical colleges as well. The Minnesota State Colleges and University system says its enrollment is up 7 percent over last year. Nearly 200,000 students are now enrolled at MnSCU schools.

Private colleges are also following the trend. Enrollment at Macalester College in St. Paul, for example, is the highest its been since 1971, at almost 2,000 students. The school has had to get creative to find on-campus housing for all those students.

Some of them, like Ayaka Sheehan, a freshman, are living in small study lounges instead of actual dorm rooms.

"When my roommate and I first got into the room we were a little disheveled, we didn't know what what was going on. But we like it," Sheehan said.

Study lounge at Macalester College
Macalester College has had to convert some study lounges into dorm rooms because of a larger than expected freshmen class.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

The roommates have done their best to turn the study lounge into a comfortable home away from home. But Sheehan notes they still don't have as much space as other students.

"The other rooms are a little bit bigger. Our beds are lofted to create more space," she said. "All of the other rooms have a sink and a mirror, and they have closets that are built into the room, big closets."

Sheehan and her roommate aren't the only Macalester students dealing with more crowded housing conditions. Some double rooms have been converted to triples, and triples into quads. A one-time office building on campus even houses a few students.

"It is crowded right now on campus. But we've managed to make sure everyone has a bed, everyone has the classes they need, everybody gets fed -- all of those crucial things get done," said Brian Rosenberg, president of Macalester.

Rosenberg said there are a couple of reasons for the enrollment increase. Macalester's retention rate is up, so more students returned to the college than in the past.

Coffman Memorial Union
Coffman Memorial Union at the University of Minnnesota.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Also, more freshmen accepted offers to enroll at Macalester -- 565 to be exact. That's 45 more than expected. Rosenberg said that's because the poor economy prompted the college to offer better financial aid packages.

Rosenberg said having more students on campus than expected isn't ideal, but it's better than not having enough.

Macalester officials say they didn't intentionally try to bump up their enrollment, but many colleges across the country did.

The National Association for College Admission Counseling recently surveyed 288 colleges and found a majority of them offered spots to more students for this fall's freshman class.

"Most colleges we surveyed, roughly two-thirds, suggested that they in fact sent out more acceptance letters this year, to potentially hedge against a smaller number of students that were going to be able to enroll in the institution," said David Hawkins, director of public policy and research at the association.

A college accepting more students may seem like an easy way to increase its revenue from tuition, especially in a down economy. But officials at the University of Minnesota say the formula doesn't quite work out that way.

"You also have to figure in the cost of managing those students, both residential life as well as the academic curricular enrollment uptick that we see," said Tom Sullivan, the U's senior vice president and provost.

At the U, 5,400 freshman are enrolled this fall, which is 300 more than last year.

Sullivan said the increase in enrollment is mainly in the business and science fields, areas the U thinks will produce the jobs of the future.

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