FARGO — North Dakota State University could have its lowest fall semester enrollment in 15 years, marking a seven-year decline that was cited in a critical review against the school’s president before he was asked to step down next year.

NDSU reported a first-day fall enrollment count of 12,390 students, which was down from its first-day count of 12,712 in 2020, according to a campus update. First-day counts are preliminary, but if the numbers hold, enrollment will fall below the 2020 official total of 12,846 students.

That would equal about a 3.5% decline since last year. If nothing changes, NDSU will see a nearly 16% drop in enrollment since numbers started to fall seven years ago.

NDSU’s highest enrollment was in 2014 with 14,747 students.

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It also would be the school’s lowest enrollment since 2007, when 12,527 students enrolled for the fall semester.

North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott noted in a critical evaluation of NDSU President Dean Bresciani that enrollment declined despite Bresciani's goal to increase the school’s student body to 18,000 by 2020.

The review questioned enrollment efforts, whether the school’s research position was “eroding” and if Bresciani risked NDSU's reputation in his handling of a provost search.

Less than two weeks after that evaluation, the State Board of Higher Education asked the president to step down from his position by the end of 2022. Bresciani has been NDSU's president since 2010.

He will remain at the school as a distinguished professor.

He may be forced to leave the leadership position early if the board finds his replacement before December 2022. The search has begun, and Hagerott said he would like to have a successful candidate chosen by March.

Bresciani said in the campus update the drop in enrollment for this year was expected. Several factors impacted overall enrollment, including the coronavirus pandemic and smaller first-year classes in 2018 and 2019.

He noted first-year enrollment came in at 2,521, which is 8% higher than last year’s class. Transfer numbers to NDSU also were up 8% compared to the start of the 2020-21 school year, and new graduate rose 7% each, he said. The number of new international students increased 57%.

“These significant increases tell me that students are interested in NDSU’s combination of rigorous academics and exceptional student experience,” he said. “It also shows that our academic offerings appeal to a diverse audience of students. This is a key component for helping the workforce needs of our state and region.”

More students could still enroll, but the number also could drop off before the official census is taken on Sept. 21.

NDSU said no one was available for interviews for this story.