NDSU enrollment continues to decline, but uptick in freshmen has president optimistic

A commitment to conduct in-person learning on campus may have helped with NDSU’s numbers, university president Dean Bresciani said. The school is offering a mix of online and classroom education with the help of nearly $28 million in federal funds meant to address challenges from the pandemic.

North Dakota State University students and their families receive tours of the campus during orientation day on Friday, Aug. 21, in Fargo. Alyssa Goelzer / The Forum
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FARGO — North Dakota State University is facing a sixth consecutive year of declining enrollment, but the school’s leader said an uptick in freshman numbers could be a sign the downward trend will reverse.

NDSU reported 12,712 students were enrolled at the university for the first full day of classes on Tuesday, Aug. 25. That’s down about 3.3% from last year’s preliminary count of 13,135.

President Dean Bresciani said he expected numbers to fall, but it’s not as bad as originally thought. It's actually less of a drop than the previous year.

The school’s first-day enrollment in the fall of 2019 was down 3.8% from the 2018 preliminary numbers. NDSU’s official count last year tallied 13,173, a 4.5% dip from the fall 2018 semester and the largest drop in a single year since 2015.

NDSU enrolled 2,328 first-year students this fall, a 4% jump compared to last year’s preliminary count of 2,240. Students appear to still be registering, spokeswoman Brynn Rawlings said.


“I think we could argue that we are in recovery,” Bresciani told The Forum in an interview on campus.

The official fall count will be released Sept. 22, a day after public universities and colleges around the state conduct their census of students.

The preliminary figure for the 2020 fall is the first time NDSU’s count has fallen below 13,000 students since 2007. It’s also a part of a downward tick that started in 2015. The school hit its all-time high in 2014 with 14,747, marking the end of a 20-year period that saw an increase in its student body almost every year.

Competition for students has grown among higher education institutions across the U.S., Bresciani previously told The Forum. Before the coronavirus pandemic resulted in mass layoffs across the U.S. and in North Dakota, workers were in short supply.

A good economy with high paying jobs can cause enrollment numbers to drop, while poor economies can convince people to go back to college, experts have said.

A commitment to conduct in-person learning on campus may have helped with NDSU’s numbers, Bresciani said. The school is offering a mix of online and classroom education with the help of nearly $28 million in federal funds meant to address challenges from the pandemic.

Some students who were slated to go to other schools may have been convinced to register with NDSU after they learned their first choices would only offer online education, Bresciani said.

He noted the University of Minnesota’s plan to switch to online learning for the first two weeks of the semester. Postponing in-person class at the Minnesota school will give administration more time to evaluate health concerns about preventing the spread of the coronavirus, according to media reports.


The decision prompted support from students who wanted guarantees of safety and opposition from those who feel enough precautions have been put in place, media reports said. Some have said they feel the decision to delay in-person learning is taking away from the college experience.

Students also have called for refunds if they cannot stay in college dorms, according to a petition that has garnered almost 2,000 signatures.

“They’re saying, ‘That’s not what I paid for. Is it too late to get into NDSU?’” Bresciani said of students.

There is a potential to see an increase from the preliminary numbers in the coming weeks, he said.

“Our students demanded a face-to-face experience,” Bresciani said. “Our faculty prefer a face-to-face experience.”

As of Tuesday, NDSU has reported 19 positive cases of coronavirus over the last two weeks.

Other schools

The North Dakota University System estimated more than 41,000 students were enrolled at public schools in the state, which is similar to last year’s first day preliminary numbers, NDUS spokeswoman Billie Jo Lorius said in an email. The official headcount for the system last fall was 44,938, she added.

It’s possible for numbers to go up. The North Dakota State College of Science based in Wahpeton had a first-day estimate of 2,126, according to preliminary numbers. That was down from last year’s unofficial count of 2,230, the school said.


NDSCS increased its enrollment to 2,977 for the fall 2019 semester when it conducted its official count.

The University of North Dakota in Grand Forks reported a Sunday estimate of 13,208 students, a 4.2% jump from last year, the school said.

Moorhead’s Concordia College and Minnesota State University Moorhead typically release numbers 30 days into the semester. MSUM may have preliminary numbers available later this week, university spokeswoman Kristi Monson said.

April Baumgarten joined The Forum in February 2019 as an investigative reporter. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, N.D., where her family raises Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at the University of Jamestown, N.D.
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