FARGO — If preliminary numbers hold up, North Dakota State University’s enrollment will hit a low it hasn’t seen in more than 10 years.
The university counted 13,135 students Tuesday, Aug. 27, for the first day of school, according to a news release issued Wednesday, Aug. 28. That means 661 fewer students are enrolled than the official count of 13,796 reported in 2018, a nearly 5% drop, according to a Forum analysis.
The official count for 2019 will not be released until Sept. 25, and students could still register or drop out. Last year the preliminary enrollment was 13,650 before nearly 150 students registered by the time of the official count, according to Forum archives.
If more students don’t enroll, this year’s slide will mark the deepest enrollment cut NDSU has seen since numbers started falling off four years ago. It also will be the lowest tally since 2008, when the school enrolled 13,229 students.
The freshman class brought 2,240 students, about the same as the fall of 2018, the release said. Graduate enrollment also was on par with previous years, the university said.
NDSU hit a historic record of 14,747 students in 2014 before the drop began in 2015. Before that, the university had not seen its student population drop since 1997. The school grew about 55% from 1997 to 2014, according to The Forum’s analysis.
The school saw dramatic increases in the late 2000s — a 15% climb from 2007 to 2010 — as the recession hit the country, said Laura Oster-Aaland, NDSU’s vice provost for student affairs and enrollment management.
“We had the recession back in 2007, and when we have a recession, people go back to school,” she previously told The Forum.
National trends show enrollment declining over the last several years, mostly due to demographics and more competitive markets, Oster-Aaland said in a statement. She told The Forum previously that K-12 schools are graduating fewer students.
“It’s almost more of a correction rather than a radical decline,” she said in a phone interview earlier this month.
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Like the rest of the nation, North Dakota and Minnesota are projected to graduate more K-12 students in the coming years, according to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE). In 2025, North Dakota could graduate 2,000 more high school students than the 2019 class, while Minnesota is slated to see 2,600 additional graduates, according to the nonprofit that tracks higher education statistics. NDSU attracts about 80% of its students from those two states.
“We can look at the numbers and ... get a pretty good feel for who is going to be out there based on who is in the K-12 system,” Oster-Aaland said. But there are a lot of other factors that could play a role in how many students go to college, she noted.
North Dakota had more than 13,000 open jobs listed in last month's report from Job Service North Dakota, but state leaders believe the actual number of job openings in the state is more than double that figure.
In his 2015 State of the University address, NDSU President Dean Bresciani set a goal of enrolling 18,000 students in 2020. He cited projections for an increase in job openings for North Dakota, calling the enrollment goal "modest" and "appropriate" in an op-ed piece.
“That number gives us the size needed to be able to broaden our options, but is not so large that we lose our student focus,” he said in the speech.
NDSU declined to comment Wednesday beyond statements made in its news release.