Switch to Semesters Causes Enrollment Declines at MnSCU

Posted: September 17, 1998

Contact: Doug Anderson, doug.anderson@so.mnscu.edu, 651-201-1426

Fall student enrollment at the 36 Minnesota State Colleges and Universities is down about 4.3 percent this year from last year, and officials believe a shift in the school year from quarters to semesters played a major role in the decline.

"It appears that the conversion from quarters to semesters had a significant impact on enrollment," said Michael Vekich, chair of the MnSCU Board of Trustees. "Based on experience at schools in other places, we expected a decline. The numbers we're seeing are consistent with the experience of other institutions that have made the switch."

Thirty-four of the 36 Minnesota State Colleges and Universities went from a school year based on quarters to one based on semesters this fall. The other two institutions made the change in 1995 and 1997. The Minnesota Legislature required the switch to semesters for all Minnesota State Colleges and Universities; the University of Minnesota will go to semesters next year.

Vekich said the switch from quarters to semesters had a number of implications that may have worked together to reduce fall enrollments. Under the new system, all Minnesota State Colleges and Universities began classes August 24, in order to finish the first semester by the December holiday break. This meant that some state colleges and universities started school up to four weeks earlier than they had started in the past.

The strength of Minnesota's economy also was a factor in the enrollment decline, Vekich said. Historically, a strong economy results in lower enrollment because prospective students tend to stay in the workforce rather than enroll in school, or take fewer courses and work more.

Student enrollment is measured in two ways. One is by counting the number of students enrolled on a given day. This method, known as headcount, measures the total number of students served, both full- and part-time.

The fall "headcount," taken September 4, the 10th day of classes, showed an overall decrease from 146,237 students in fall 1997 to 139,988 students this year, a drop of 6,249 students or about 4.3 percent.

In general, the decline was larger for the 29 technical and community colleges (5 percent) than for seven state universities (3 percent). However, for the five state universities that switched to semesters this fall, the average drop was 4.7 percent.

Another way to measure enrollment is by counting the number of credit hours taken by students and dividing by the full-time credit load of 30 credits per year. This method provides a measure of full-year equivalent enrollment.

Preliminary estimates suggest that full-year equivalent enrollment will go from about 110,300 students for the 1997-1998 school year to about 106,100 students this year, a drop of 4,200 students or about 3.8 percent. Final full-year equivalent enrollments are not calculated until next fall.

Part of the decline in full-year equivalent enrollment may be the result of students taking fewer credits than they did in past years. The average number of credits taken by students decreased by 2.5 percent this fall, compared with fall 1997.

"The good news is that new freshman enrollments at state universities appear to be up," said Morris Anderson, chancellor of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities. "That suggests we're on the right track in attracting new students, and that enrollments will bounce back over the next year or two." Enrollment of new freshmen at state universities was up by 10 percent.

Another positive sign is a significant increase in the number of students who graduated during the 1997-1998 school year. Anderson said the switch from quarters to semesters prompted an unusually high number of students to graduate sooner than they might have otherwise. Students who were near completion of their degrees took larger credit loads last year or enrolled in a summer session in order to graduate before semesters went into effect.

"The data we have shows a dramatic increase in the numbers of graduates at several of our institutions," Anderson said. Among the community colleges and the combined community and technical colleges, the number of graduates for the 1997-98 school year was 8.3 percent higher than the previous year, and some institutions had increases of more than 20 percent.

The move to semesters may have had an impact on enrollments in other ways, according to Chancellor Anderson.

"For our students, the loss of four weeks of income from a summer job can make a big difference in whether they can afford to go to school," he said. The impact of the early start of school should be lessened next summer because classes will end earlier, leaving more time for summer jobs.

Another factor may have been the timing of tuition payments, Anderson said. With semesters, tuition is paid only two times a year instead of three times, so students faced a larger initial payment at the beginning of the fall term.

Anderson said he expects the enrollment drop to be a temporary phenomenon. Southwest State University in Marshall, which switched to semesters last year, had a 12.6 percent headcount increase this fall, and Moorhead State University, Moorhead, which switched to semesters in 1995, had a 1.3 percent increase. They were the only two state universities to show a gain this year.

Anderson said the strong Minnesota economy also is a likely factor in enrollment declines. Minnesota's August 1998 unemployment rate is the lowest on record, and the third lowest in the nation. The August figure of 2.1 percent is down by 1.1 percent from the August 1997 figure of 3.2 percent.

"When students can easily find well-paying jobs, they may postpone their education in order to take advantage of that," Anderson said. "With the job market as strong as it is, it is not surprising that we are seeing some effect on enrollments due to the economy."


Minnesota's 31 state community and technical colleges, and universities serve more than 430,000 students across the state.