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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.

In the few years before the pandemic, system enrollment had been decreasing by just under 2% annually.

"The pandemic continues to have a significant impact on our financials and enrollment," Bill Maki, Minnesota State's vice chancellor for finance and facilities, told the system's board of trustees Tuesday.

By comparison, enrollment at the University of Minnesota's five campuses remained largely stable this fall. The flagship Twin Cities campus landed one of its largest freshman classes in decades.

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.

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.

Olson speculated that Minnesota's aging population, a strong job market and continued concerns about the pandemic contributed to Winona State's enrollment decrease, which he said will cost about $8 million in tuition revenue.

Meanwhile, enrollment at the system's largest institution, Minnesota State University, Mankato remained stable. And at Pine Technical and Community College in Pine City, fall enrollment rebounded to the tune of a 9% increase.

Overall, the systemwide enrollment decline has created a budget hole of more than $60 million. Minnesota State will cover that gap with one-time federal COVID-19 stimulus funds it received this year.

During the Tuesday board of trustees meeting, trustee George Soule noted that if enrollment does not bounce back in the coming years, the system will continue to face large annual budget deficits without the same federal funding to cover them.

"That would be spot on," Maki responded.

Mike Dean, executive director of the community college student association LeadMN, said he worries Minnesota State's continued enrollment spiral could negatively impact the state if efforts are not made to reverse it.

"I think this is going to have a devastating impact on the future workforce of Minnesota," Dean said.

In an interview, Maki said system institutions are focused on stabilizing their enrollments and are hopeful there will be some recovery next year.

But, he said, "I don't think in many cases we expect [enrollment] to return back to where we were five, six years ago."

Steepest enrollment declines, by school

Community colleges:
Riverland Community College; down 461 students, 14%
St. Paul College; down 644 students, 11%
Lake Superior College; down 428 students, 10%
North Hennepin Community College; down 533 students, 9.5%

Minnesota State University, Moorhead; down 469 students, 8.5%
Metropolitan State University; down 601 students, 8%
Winona State University; down 560 students, 8%
St. Cloud State University; down 883 students, 8%

Ryan Faircloth • 612-673-4234

Twitter: @ryanfaircloth