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College enrollment numbers tricky to predict

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U of M freshmen
A group of U of M freshmen head to convocation last week to prepare for the first day of school today. U officials say about 50 more freshmen than they expected will be on campus this fall. That brings the class size to about 5,300.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Tuesday marks the first day of classes at several colleges in the state, including the University of Minnesota. 

This can be a nerve-wracking time for college officials, who will soon find out if they hit their enrollment targets. Too few students can mean revenue shortfalls. Too many students can overwhelm classrooms and dorms.

If that's not enough pressure, enrollment officials say it's getting harder to guess how many students will show up in the fall. 

At the University of Minnesota, knowing how many freshmen are going to show up on campus in the fall is more than just a guessing game. 

University officials wanted 5,230. But for the second year in a row they're going to have more freshmen than they expected. 

This year it's about 50 more, which officials say is a manageable overshot. They won't have problems finding housing for those extra students or squeezing them into classes on the Twin Cities campus.

But at the university's Duluth campus, 120 students are being housed in a hotel because of crowded on-campus housing. More student transfers, and fewer housing cancellations, caused the overflow, officials said.

It highlights something college officials are seeing across the state. More freshmen who've been accepted to college are actually following through and showing up. 

Convocation crowd
About 5,000 students showed up for the U of M's freshman convocation last week.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

That's puzzling to Bob McMaster, the U of M's dean of undergraduate education. 

"I suspect there's an economic base for it, but we really don't know," McMaster said. 

The economic reasoning could be this: Students who in past years might have attended an out-of-state school, or a more expensive private college, are choosing to go the U of M. Tuition and housing is about $17,000 a year at the U. Tuition alone averages $30,000 a year at the state's private schools. 

The problem with that theory is that some private college officials say they're seeing the same phenomenon.

Lorne Robinson, dean of admissions and financial aid at Macalester College in St. Paul, said the college will have about 20 more freshmen on campus this fall than was expected. 

That shouldn't cause problems, school officials say. It's not like last year, when 85 more showed up. For many of those students, home sweet home on campus was a renovated study lounge in a dorm. 

"I'm curious to see if there are patterns to peoples' decisions. ...  there doesn't seem to be a pattern."

Robinson doesn't have an answer, economic or otherwise, as to why more freshmen are showing up on campus. 

"Honestly, I've looked because this is my life, this is my job," he said. "I'm curious to see if there are patterns to peoples' decisions. At this point there doesn't seem to be a pattern."

Another admissions director does think there's a solid correlation between the economy and the number of freshmen showing up on his campus. 

Brian Jones at Minnesota State University  Mankato said last year, his school's  freshman enrollment took a slight dip. 

He heard from students who wanted to attend Mankato and had been accepted, but decided instead to live at home and take their first two years of classes at a community college. 

Jones doesn't have solid numbers for this fall's freshman class yet, but thinks enrollment is going to rebound because more students and families are hopeful about their economic situation.

"But I think certainly a lot of folks are more secure now, at least in what's taking place, and certainly looking at higher education as a good investment in this economy," he said.

For the state's community and technical colleges, the economy is key to predicting what their enrollment will be.

Jeff Wig, dean of career and technical programs at Central Lakes College in Brainerd and Staples, said its headcount is 13 percent higher than a year ago. The school has been in session for two weeks.

The college had a tough time planning for enrollment this year, because officials weren't sure what last-minute decisions students were going to make. 

"I think students were trying to hedge their bets," Wig said. "They're hoping to gain employment, but then they were also making plans to go to school, and were waiting until the very last minute to make their decision on which way they wanted to go."

Last year, the school added several new sections, and some night classes, to handle an increase in students, Wig said. 

Despite that, about a dozen students weren't able to enroll in a diesel mechanics program at the college this fall. Officials decided the equipment needed to add another section would cost too much.