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ST. CLOUD — University leaders here say enrollment has ticked up slightly this fall for the first time in eight years — a positive sign amid recent turmoil over cuts to faculty and programs prompted by a looming budget deficit.

The student head count, which includes undergraduate and graduate students, increased by about 70 to 10,130 this year. Other than in 2015, when enrollment increased by about 45 students, the number has been steadily decreasing since St. Cloud State University (SCSU) saw its peak of 18,300 in 2010.

This fall, SCSU saw small increases in the number of new first-year and transfer students, along with an uptick in students living on campus. The number of full-time students is up about 7.5% from a year ago.

"This figure shows that the hard work we are doing to revisit our structures, processes and platforms to attract and retain students is working," said Robbyn Wacker, president of SCSU. "It's no secret that higher education has faced several challenges over the past several years, and our work to strategically address these issues head on is making a difference."


But the modest increase doesn't do much to assuage budget concerns, especially because undergraduate students, in general, are taking fewer credits than last year. That results in fewer tuition dollars and affects the formula used to determine the university's share of funding among the Minnesota State system schools.

Another factor negatively impacting tuition: the delayed launch of the undergraduate accelerated online programs, which had a projected income of $2.5 million in 2024 and $10 million in 2025. The university planned to launch about a dozen accelerated online programs this fall, but the state system hit pause while it examines the proposal because of concerns about partnering with a for-profit company.

That creates more pressure to further reduce the university's expenses, according to Larry Lee, vice president of finance and administration, who gave a budget update to faculty last week.

This spring, university administrators announced cuts to faculty and programs amid a budget deficit of about $24.5 million. Leaders cut at least 20 faculty jobs before start of this year and have shared plans that outline dozens of additional cuts over the next few years.

Wacker has attributed the chronic budget deficit to a steady enrollment decline that wasn't met with a similar reduction in staffing levels; the head count at SCSU has dropped from more than 16,000 in 2013 to about 10,000 last fall. During that time, when student enrollment fell about 38%, employee levels dropped by only 22%.

Lee called the revenue base "strong," as it generated more than $122 million in the last fiscal year, but it was not enough to meet expenses of about $140 million. Lee told faculty the goal is to reduce spending by 7% this year by multiple means, including employee layoffs and buyouts, freezing vacant positions, and taking buildings or classrooms offline to save operational costs.

"Already, many university departments have reduced positions to meet required spending reductions. These decisions are painful. They will disrupt lives, and the consequences of eliminating positions will ripple throughout our community," Lee said in a letter to faculty members last week. "But as much as I and members of the leadership team regret the necessity of these actions, they must be taken to restore the university's overall fiscal health."