More high school grads skip college as enrollment plummets at many MN campuses

There’s no writing off the decline in enrollment at many Minnesota colleges as a fluke any longer. What started as trickle in high school graduates skipping out on going to college has turned into a relative deluge, according to the latest numbers in the Star Tribune.

The Minnesota State system of public universities and community colleges has lost nearly 20,000 students over the past two years, a troubling sign that the pandemic is exacerbating an enrollment decline that has spanned the past decade.

Total enrollment in the Minnesota State system has decreased about 11% since fall 2019, from nearly 172,000 students to about 153,000, according to enrollment head count data. Enrollment fell 6% this fall, surpassing the 5% drop that occurred last year when colleges held more classes online during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the University of Minnesota system held its own this fall, the trend for the Minnesota State system — one of the largest in the country — looks ominous, particularly among full-time students.

Minnesota State is the third-largest state college system in the country with 30 community colleges and seven universities. The system has long played a key role in developing Minnesota’s workforce.

A decade ago, there were 158,000 full-time students in the system. This fall, the number of full-time students attending Minnesota State institutions had fallen to about 108,000.

Minnesota State administrators said the 6% enrollment decline this fall was worse than anticipated and likely due to the more contagious delta variant causing a surge in new COVID-19 cases right before the semester began.

How bad is the freefall? Several campuses experienced double-digit declines.

Some colleges fared worse than others. Fall enrollment dropped 14% at Riverland Community College — which has campuses in Austin, Albert Lea and Owatonna — 11% at St. Paul College, 10% at Lake Superior College in Duluth and 9% at Rochester Community and Technical College.

“Our new entering class last year and this year is considerably smaller,” said Scott Olson, president of Winona State University, which saw its overall enrollment decline 8% this fall. St. Cloud State University and Metropolitan State University in St. Paul also experienced 8% drops.

The Minnesota State system will cover the resulting $60 million decline in revenue with federal pandemic funding — this year. But educators told the Post Bulletin that unfavorable demographics and other trends present a challenge beyond this academic year.

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 [Rochester Community and Technical College] spokesman Nate Stoltman.

But Stoltman also touched on something else going on under the surface, a reappraisal of whether college makes sense for many students.

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.'”

It seems probable the reasons for the backlash go well beyond online learning. Clearly, high school grads increasingly question the relevance, not to mention the extravagant price tag, of college attendance. They have to deal with vaccine mandates and the reality that much of the fun has gone out of the experience, given the rampant political correctness that restricts the free exchange of ideas and relations with fellow students. No wonder thousands of Minnesota high school grads are skipping college to enter the hottest job market in years with no student loans to hold them back.