North Dakota colleges defy sharp nationwide admission decline

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As we hit the middle of the spring term for most colleges, enrollment is continuing a downward trend nationwide. Overall undergraduate enrollment is down 4.5% compared to last spring, according to data from The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

I took a pulse of our local schools, already looking ahead to the fall semester.

“When you compare this year’s spring to last year’s spring, we’re up a little bit more than 4%,” shared Dickinson State University President Steve Easton.

He is pleased to see a rise in enrollment from spring to spring that is numerically equvialent to the drop on a national scale. It’s enrollment going into the fall, however, that is causing some worry.

“We’re down about 5-6% at this point in completed applications,” Easton added. “…It’s my job to be worried about this.”

Below is a look at new students admitted to DSU in the last four years. (The 2021 figure, last updated February 28, is not final).

  • 2018: 299
  • 2019: 300
  • 2020: 340
  • 2021: 317

“It’s a move. It’s not in the direction you’d like, but it’s not a really big move and I think that…I think everything’s moving later,” President Easton said.

“I think there are going to be students that are applying later in the process.”

Across the U.S. it’s the community colleges that have been the hardest hit by COVID-19, with enrollment numbers down almost 9.5% from last spring.

Here, Bismarck State College saw a small decrease from spring 2020 to spring 2021, at 1.64%.

“I don’t even know that we had an expectation, other than we wanted to try to make sure that we could help our students be successful during these trying times,” shared Karen Erickson, the Dean of Enrollment Management at Bismarck State College.

She says this slight dip is no different than the past few years, which she says has a direct correlation to a drop in the state’s high school graduation rate.

“Our enrollment has almost held steady,” Erickson added.

“As North Dakota’s only polytechnic institution, we offer programs that are very…they’re in high demand.”

BSC did see a large growth in several majors, including nursing and cybersecurity.

· Associate Degree Nursing up 20%
· Practical Nursing up 22%
· Medical Laboratory Technician up 23%
· Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) up 64%
· Cybersecurity AAS up 66%
· Cybersecurity BAS up 13%

Erickson attributes some of the retentions to the school continuing to offer face-to-face classes in some capacity throughout the last year.

“They want to experience the campus life,” said Brenda Nagel, Vice President for Public Affairs at the University of Mary.

Nagel says fall 2021 recruitment is actually up from this time last year, by about 8%.

“Our number of applications today, compared to pre-pandemic, are quite a bit higher,” she said. “So I think we are definitely on the path of growth. We have not seen a decline in enrollment in several years.”

Erickson says she expects enrollment at BSC to get out of the deficit by the fall.

Dickinson State will have a better idea of final fall enrollment numbers at the end of April when students begin to register for classes. President Easton attributes the spring growth to new athletic programs, adding a master’s program, and bringing in students from Dickinson High School to take some college classes early.


Graduate school enrollment is a completely different story.

In fact, it’s growing more with each passing semester, up by 4.3% this spring.

While Brenda Nagel says undergraduate enrollment is up, the keyword to describing admission to the private school’s primary graduate program is ‘stable’. That’s the MBA or Master of Business Administration.

Nagel says graduate school at UMary, and across the country, has been offered online for years, which made the pandemic transition a little smoother.

Interestingly, advanced healthcare degrees are rising in popularity right now, especially respiratory therapy.

“Now those are the people that have been working day-in-and-day-out with the pandemic,” Nagel added. “You know, a respiratory pandemic where respiratory therapists are really in the heat of the battle, we’ve got a lot of respiratory therapy students.”

Nagel couldn’t provide a percent change for graduate school enrollment.

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