FARGO — Dipping enrollment this year likely will cost North Dakota State University between $5 million and $6 million, the school’s leader said Friday, Sept. 13, noting that the state is depending on NDSU to boost enrollment and help fill open jobs.

The school will finalize its enrollment numbers by Sept. 25, but preliminary figures show 13,135 students were signed up for the first day of school in late August. That’s 661 students fewer than the official count in 2018, or a nearly 5% drop.

This was the fifth year in a row NDSU reported a decline for its student body since hitting an all-time high of 14,747 in 2014. If the preliminary numbers hold up, it will be the sharpest drop of the past five years and the lowest enrollment total since 2008.

The numbers reflect a “taste of the future” to which officials should pay attention, University President Dean Bresciani told members of the NDSU Foundation and Alumni Association Executive Governing Board on Friday.

Competition has grown for students, Bresciani said. NDSU has to look at the local, state, regional and national environments, “all of which are stacking the odds against us,” when it comes to attracting students, he said.

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“But North Dakota can’t afford for us to fail, so we’re going to have to become increasingly aggressive, creative and focused on maintaining and, if at all possible, growing enrollments,” he said.

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The school budgeted revenues last year at $424 million and is projected to have $427 million in revenue this year, NDSU spokeswoman Laura McDaniel said. That includes the $5 million to $6 million drop, she said.

It’s unclear how the drop in enrollment, and ultimately the loss in income, will impact the university, Bresciani said earlier this week in a letter to the campus. Staff are investigating what steps will need to be taken, he said.

Bresciani cited messages that say college costs too much, a higher education isn’t worth it and low unemployment allows students to get a good-paying job out of high school.

“It’s somewhat of an alignment of the stars nationally that has resulted in a dramatic increase in the competition for students,” he said, noting an expected long-term trend of decreasing enrollment for the U.S. “We’re caught up in that, and that’s going to be very important for us to ramp up our game.”

Roughly 13,700 jobs were listed as open in August through Job Service North Dakota, though officials believe that number is much higher.

Bresciani said he's ready to tackle the challenge of boosting NDSU's enrollment so it can graduate potential employees for North Dakota businesses in need of workers. “We are better positioned to do that than any other college or university in the state,” he said.

Some strategies to increase enrollment have included waiving undergraduate application fees, increasing student aid, looking at launching high-demand programs and providing more online degrees, he wrote in the letter to campus.

There is good news in the preliminary numbers, Bresciani said. The freshman class count was on par with last year’s finalized total of 2,240 students. Most schools in the region saw a substantial drop for that group, Bresciani said.

“Holding steady in some sense in the current environment is something to be pleased with,” he said.

Bresciani formed a task force last year to discuss recruiting tactics, an effort he said helped prevent a drop in freshman enrollment.

But NDSU has to compete with the University of Minnesota, which is “buying its way to enrollment stability,” Bresciani said. The Minnesota school has increased the amount of scholarships it offers.

The university will begin to formulate its five-year strategy this month, Bresciani said. The school must be responsive to the needs of current and future students, he said in his letter to campus.

He called the goals to meet North Dakota’s economic and academic needs ambitious, adding that NDSU will “not be able to simply ‘market’ our way through this challenging environment.” The university must explore new opportunities, he said.

“Of course, it takes time for new offerings to work up to their full potential, so we look forward to their further development,” he said. “In the meantime, we need more options, and we need the academic units to lead this effort.”