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University officials, experts weigh in on why MSU has avoided statewide enrollment decrease

April 29, 2022
<p>MSU&#x27;s campus bird&#x27;s eye view from the top of the Graduate Hotel on April 5, 2022.</p>

MSU's campus bird's eye view from the top of the Graduate Hotel on April 5, 2022.

College enrollment has been on a steady decline nationwide in the last decade.

According to the most recent National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, or NSCRC, numbers, postsecondary enrollment has dropped by nearly 14% between fall 2011 and 2020, a loss of a little more than 2.75 million students.

Michigan has fared worse than the national average. The state’s number of enrolled students in in-state institutions has dropped by a dramatic 30% between 2011 and 2020. This equals a loss of nearly 200,000 college students.

The state’s public colleges are no exception. The Michigan Association of State Universities, or MASU, reported in 2011 that enrollment was at 303,969 students. Today, that number is about 13% less, at 262,985.

Many Michigan experts point to declining birth rates and high school graduates in the state since 2001 as the primary cause of this negative trend.

Michigan State University Dean of Undergraduate Studies Mark Largent is one such expert. He points to traumatic events like the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and the following economic recession starting a declining birth rate trend in the north and east of the United States.

“The reason that it's happening is because in 2001, when the planes hit the towers, people stopped having babies in a big part of the United States,” Largent said. “It wasn't felt universally across the country, but it was really felt heavily in the north and heavily in the east.”

Michigan was included in this region, and Largent said the state’s inability to recover from the recession impacted its birth rates harder.

“(In) Michigan, that birth rate decline lasted longer than it did in other places. And that's because Michigan never had a bounce back economically between the 2001, 2002 recession, and then the really big recession in 2007,” Largent said. “So the birth rates stayed low and never bounced back.”

The theory goes that the drop in births in the first decade of the new millennium have now caused an increasingly low amount of Michigan high school graduates going into the third.

Data supports this. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there were 105,446 high school graduates in Michigan in 2011. In 2021, that number is projected to be around 95,800 — almost a 10% decline.

But a simple loss of potential college students doesn’t explain trends in public institution enrollment. While Michigan’s total number of students enrolled in public universities may have only dropped 13%, the average percentage change across all public institutions averages to a drop of 17.93%. 

That means that on average, a Michigan public university could expect to see nearly a 18% drop in enrollment between 2011 and 2021.

The worst hit public is Central Michigan University, which showed a 45% decrease in the last decade. Following is Eastern Michigan University and Saginaw Valley State University, with a 34% and 30% decrease respectively. 

Only two schools saw enrollment increases: University of Michigan Ann Arbor and Michigan State University, with 18% and 3% net gains.

This shift towards flagship universities, or the most known universities in a state, is fueled by a number of factors, according to MSU College of Education associate professor Brendan Cantwell.

“I think part of it is about choosing the better known institutions, and part of it is about better known institutions increasing the number of students they admit,” Cantwell said. “I'm not sure that we have evidence to know whether students' preferences have shifted or if students' options have changed.”

MSU’s acceptance rate has increased over the last decade, with about a 10% difference between 2011’s 72.9% and 2021’s 83.3%. Application numbers have increased by over 22,000 in the same period.

Cantwell points to a changing attitude in graduating high schoolers that has emerged since 2015. He said many potential college students have become disillusioned with higher education due to high costs and shrinking wage differences between college graduates and non-graduates. 

Adding to this trend is the pandemic, which Cantwell said decreased the motivation for those on the “bubble” to go to college.

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“I think that the pandemic really hollowed out, or weakened the propensity to go to college for what we might call a person on the bubble,” Cantwell said. “Who's not sure whether they want to go to college or not, who's not sure if it's right for them or if they can afford it.”

Meanwhile, students who planned to go to college far in advance still went to college, namely flagship public universities and non-profit private colleges, according to Cantwell.

“Those students are continuing to go to college, and they're continuing to go to the same places that they've always gone,” Cantwell said. “So, the privates and sort of better known public universities.”

Cantwell also commented that the push for more racial and socioeconomic diversity in flagship schools may be a contributor to rising enrollment. 

“They're kind of going out and recruiting more students who may have chose other kinds of institutions in the past,” Cantwell said. “And therefore the students who they've always attracted are coming to them and then additional students who they are recruiting are coming to them.”

Data from MSU’s Fall 2021 Enrollment Report supports this. Since 2011, the number of students of color has increased by 46%, and the proportion of the group makes up out of the total student population has increased by over 7%.

MSU Director of Undergraduate Admissions John Ambrose said he’s noticed a few trends in his department regarding applications and student perspectives.

He noted MSU’s turn to the Common Application as a turning point for university admissions, with their switch to it 2019 coinciding with the first increase in applicants in two years.

Ambrose said the ease of the universal application is the motivator behind the increased numbers.

“What we've noticed is that students are excited about Common App because it reduces the amount of time that they spend filling out college applications,” Ambrose said.

More than half of public universities in the state have now adopted the Common Application, but Ambrose said the institutions that have recently adopted it, such as CMU and Saginaw Valley State University, may not have seen the benefits yet.

“A number of the other regional schools in the state of Michigan have just joined the common app,” Ambrose said. “So they haven't had an opportunity yet to take advantage of being on there.”

As for why college enrollment is down across the state, Ambrose doesn’t entirely buy the birth rate theory. He instead claims higher education has an “image problem”.

“We hear a lot about tuition and debt, the rising cost of education,” Ambrose said. “We hear a lot about students making comparisons to the Bill Gates’ of the world — ‘Well, he didn't finish college, so why should I have to go?’.”

He believes postsecondary institutions have to transform how they recruit in order to beat this perception.

“Some of us have got to wake up that we've got to do some things differently,” Ambrose said. “Just because some of it looks like it's still on repeat, I will tell you the young people are not on repeat.”


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