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BEMIDJI - The campus at Bemidji State University is a little emptier than it was years ago. The regional public university nestled on the lake — the only school of its kind for 100 miles — formerly attracted more than 4,000 students.

Enrollment has dropped to just over 3,000. Budget deficits have grown by millions. And two dozen faculty members expect to be out of a job by this time next year. But new leaders are in place, a reorganization is underway and a new state program will soon cover tuition for some students.

So Thomas Dirth, the faculty association president, often finds himself juggling an odd mix of hope, stress and frustration.

"We have zero margin for error," Dirth said, "and a lot of this is out of our control."

Colleges across the country are increasingly seeking ways to cut costs as they grapple with the aftermath of years of enrollment declines — challenges often felt most acutely at regional schools like Bemidji State University. And the effects ripple across the community: The university is one of the five largest employers in this town of 15,000 people. The majority of the staff affected by the cuts live there, and many also participate in local community groups.

"I know we're not the only city that is grappling with universities losing student count and then in turn having to downsize," said Bemidji Mayor Jorge Prince, an alumnus of the university. "From our standpoint, I think we want to see the university be successful."

The number of students attending college in the United States rose in the aftermath of the Great Recession but has since declined by more than 1 million students, or nearly 10%. Americans' opinions about higher education are shifting, with polling showing Democrats question the costs and Republicans raise concerns about political bias. A decline in births years ago means there will soon be fewer high school graduates. A stronger job market offering higher wages has more of them choosing to forgo college and head straight to work.

"Those kinds of economic forces are more pronounced at the regional institutions," said Nathan Grawe, a Carleton College professor who wrote a book about how demographic shifts could change higher education. "Bemidji State is not alone in grappling with this."

Other schools in the Minnesota State system of colleges and universities, such as St. Cloud State and Winona State universities, have also unveiled plans for cuts or are considering them. The University of Wisconsin announced it will end classes at some of its branch campuses, and public universities in Pennsylvania and Georgia have also gone through mergers or other consolidations in the past decade.

Public regional schools tend to serve more people of color, students from low-income families and first-generation students.

"If you're going to move the needle on state educational attainment, regional colleges are absolutely essential," said Tom Harnisch, vice president for government relations at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. "Most students don't travel beyond an hour or two of their house to go to college, so for some students it's either the regional public college or no college at all."

About 45% of Bemidji State University students come from within a 100-mile radius. A decade ago, the school enrolled the equivalent of about 4,300 full-year students. Now the number is closer to 3,200.

'No one ever wants to make cuts'

Bemidji State University leaders revised their budget estimates multiple times in the past two years, and the projected deficit grew from an estimated $1.5 million closer to $11 million.

So John Hoffman, who took over as president last year, sought a loan from the Minnesota State system and informed roughly two dozen faculty members that they'll be laid off or their contracts won't be renewed after this school year. Some other divisions, which provide various services to students, expect cuts as well.

"No one ever wants to make cuts," Hoffman said. "I've tried to apologize to every individual who we've laid off, because even though it may feel like I know it's the right thing for the university, it still hurts for them."

Had things continued as they were "we would have faced viability questions at some point in the near future," Hoffman said. But he's trying to avoid that — and to minimize the impact on students.

Jacob Hanson, a senior majoring in chemistry, said he hasn't noticed the effects but, "I know others have seen and felt that." He worried one of his professors might be cut, but her job appears to be safe for now.

"I'm hopeful," Hanson said, noting that he was encouraged when he saw college staff taking down a list of students' suggestions during a forum last month.

New leaders are overseeing the university's finances, fundraising and enrollment. They're boosting efforts to recruit high school students and also increasingly trying to entice adults who earned some college credits but didn't complete their degrees. The provost is working with faculty to better tailor the curriculum to job needs in northern Minnesota.

New student enrollment increased about 10% this fall, and faculty and administrators hope the launch of a new state program next year will help drive that number up even further. The North Star Promise program will cover tuition and most fees for students who want to attend public universities in the state if their families make less than $80,000 per year. Beltrami County, where BSU is located, has one of the highest poverty rates in the state.

"I do believe there is a path forward to us thriving once again," Hoffman said.

Uncertainty about changes ahead

More university reorganization details are still being hashed out, but Hoffman expects it will allow them to save money by cutting at least one dean position.

Officials acknowledge the cuts are disproportionately affecting faculty of color, many of whom were hired more recently than their white colleagues. And some who remain expect they could face additional job responsibilities.

"We're getting pretty thin for what we need in order to see us into the future and not become a radically changed institution," said Dirth, the faculty association president.

Student Senate President Sarah Kessler, a senior studying accounting, said three of her four classes were only offered online. Senate Vice President Darby Bersie, a junior studying English and history, knows of professors who are talking about the cuts in class.

The pair spent weeks pushing university administrators to clarify whether majors will be cut. Hoffman said they won't be, though leaders are looking at "streamlining" or "simplifying" some programs.

The student leaders worry it's simply too early to understand the effects. Many of the professors who will be cut are still wrapping up their terms, and registration for the 2024-25 school year hasn't begun.

Kessler and Bersie struggle to figure out what to tell prospective students. An increase in enrollment could help turn things around but they also don't want to make false promises.

"Obviously, it's going to affect us, probably in the next five years," Bersie said. "But I assume the hope is we can come back from this."