FARGO — The number of students interested in attending North Dakota State University, particularly among minorities, has increased significantly after the school waived its application fees this year, according to numbers presented by a school leader.

NDSU has received 28% more applications for this fall compared to last year, University Chief of Staff Chris Wilson said Thursday, July 9, during an NDSU Foundation Executive Governing Board meeting.

Among Black prospective students, the school saw a 51% increase in applications and a 57% rise in admissions. Native American applications jumped 41%, with a 49% climb in admissions.

"Those are phenomenal increases in the course of a year, and it was something as simple as a $35 application fee that was creating that barrier," he said.

Waiving the fees cost NDSU money, Wilson said. The school brought in $248,605 from application fees in fiscal year 2019, according to the North Dakota University System.

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Gate City Bank donated $50,000 to help cover the cost of the waived fees, said Kim Meyer, executive vice president and chief human resources officer at the bank. It was a "unique way" to help "remove financial barriers students may have in applying for college."

"North Dakota Colleges and Universities are facing declining enrollments, and they need every opportunity to attract students so we can retain them in our communities," she wrote in a statement. "Students are our future workforce and community supporters."

Like other colleges across the U.S., NDSU has seen a dip in attendance over the last several years. The coronavirus has added to that issue around the country, and some institutions will be hit harder than others, Wilson said.

"What you are going to see in the higher education industry in the fall is anybody's guess, but the general perception is that it's not going to be pretty as an industry," Wilson said.

Enrollment overall at NDSU likely will drop this year, though first-year numbers could be up from last year, according to projections. Official numbers will be available about three weeks after the first day of school.

This comes at a time when the school is preparing to launch a learning model that mixes online and in-person education. Some students are expected to return to campus after the university switched to online classes only in the spring.

NDSU received nearly $20 million from the federal government to help bring back students. Those who are physically present on campus will have to wear a mask in the classroom and in other gathering areas.

NDSU hasn't finalized an occupancy rate for classrooms, but it continues to work on that detail, university spokeswoman Brynn Rawlings said. Professors who are more vulnerable to the coronavirus or are taking care of someone who can easily be infected will have the option to teach remotely, Wilson said.

Using a hybrid of online and in-person education could set up the university to reach different populations around the region, particularly those who cannot physically be present at the school but still want to pursue a degree, he said.

The end date of the pandemic is unclear, but if the hybrid model works well, NDSU may continue to use it, he said.

“It’s going to change how we do business for years to come,” Wilson said.