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MnSCU enrollment dips; more students going part-time

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MnSCU's offices in St. Paul
The offices of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

After years of growth, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system is seeing a dip in enrollment this fall compared to last year.

Across the system's 31 colleges and universities, enrollment is down 2.5 percent. The state's community colleges alone saw a 3.5 percent decline.

MnSCU officials say there are a number of reasons for the decrease, among them the number of students who graduated last spring.

"We had significantly higher graduation than we've had in previous years, up about 6 percent," said Leslie Mercer, MnSCU's associate vice chancellor for research and planning. "We think some of those students got through the pipeline and are ready to go out and get to work."

Also significant was a drop in the number of full-time students. More students attend school part-time while they work, Mercer said.

That's what Jessica Stumpf sees at Anoka-Ramsey Community College where she serves as interim president.

"Their way of dealing with the economy is by taking fewer classes, but still staying in college," Stumpf said. "They're still there, but the number of credits they're taking is lower."

The student headcount at Anoka-Ramsey Community College went down by 2.2 percent this fall. The number of full-time students fell by almost three times as much.

Even with the drop, MnSCU still records its second highest system-wide enrollment ever, at more than 200,000 students.

When students go to school part-time, it stretches out their academic career, meaning they spend more on tuition and fees.

The steady rise in the cost of tuition may also play a role in full-time student declines, said Justin Klander, executive director of the Minnesota State College Student Association.

"We're worried that students have hit a wall in their ability to access higher education full-time," he said. "That may be why we see more part-time students this year."

At Central Lakes College in Brainerd, student body president Steve Sabin has heard from lots of fellow classmates who can't afford to go to school full-time.

Sabin, 29, is a full-time nursing student.  But he and his wife have decided it would be best for the family if he goes to school part-time next semester.

"We're definitely backing off just so we can actually earn money and not take out more debt just to put a roof over our head," he said.

MnSCU officials say they will do further research into why the overall full-time student head count went down this fall.

Meanwhile, they're highlighting an increase in another area: the number of minority students at MnSCU schools.

This fall, the system has more than 43,000 students who are racial minorities, a nearly 5 percent increase over last year. That's the highest number of racial minority students MnSCU has ever enrolled.