musicians at UM Morris

Chili cook-off/jam session at University of Minnesota – Morris
Photo: Nic McPhee

Many rural colleges are seeing their enrollments shrivel. It’s tough competing with big-time athletic teams, major museums a subway ride away, and all the other metropolitan goose-bumps. But some colleges like University of Minnesota, Morris have devised aggressive ways to attract new students.

Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune listened in on how admissions officers at UM-Morris are beating the drum. This public liberal arts university, located about 150 miles west of Minneapolis — “45 miles from the nearest Target store” — sends Mike Vandenberg to the Twin Cities to talk up UMM at three and four city high schools a day; that’s where the applicants are, for as rural Minnesota’s populations dwindle, the stretch of Minnesota from St. Cloud to Rochester is booming.

UM-Morris, like many other rural colleges, is losing its formerly reliable base of applicants. The rural communities right around Morris — and their high schools — are shrinking, too. According to Shelman’s story, the number of high school graduates in Minnesota is expected to decline by 3 percent in the next decade. Projected declines are even steeper for neighboring states. Numbers of North Dakota high schools grads are expected to drop 23%; South Dakota may see 8% fewer high school grads, and Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan each expect to produce 6% fewer high school diplomas in the next ten years.

In response, there’s appears to be a new mini-industry: consultants in rural college enrollment. Meanwhile, rural university admissions officers are stretching, both reaching into the metro areas nearest by, as with Vandenberg’s pep talks in Minneapolis/St. Paul, and scouting for high school graduates far off, too.

UM-Morris will reimburse “prospective students who live more than 350 miles away up to $500 just for visiting the campus.” Paying for a look-see seems to be working. “Of the students who took advantage of that, about 60 percent enrolled,” at UM-Morris said James Morales, the college’s associate vice chancellor for enrollment.

Some rural colleges are dangling big tuition incentives also. Shelman reports that Minnesota-Morris, Minnesota-Crookston, Southwest Minnesota State, Bemidji State and Minnesota State Moorhead now all offer out-of-state students a college education at in-state rates.

Ethan Lindsey reported for Marketplace on the shape of things at Eastern Oregon University in La Grande. La Grande’s number of applicants had dropped by half in only two years. Western Oregon University is trying to ward off similar declines by promising not to raise tuition for the next four years. Meanwhile, Eastern Oregon, La Grande, has taken education to the students, via distanced learning. University president Dixie Lund told Marketplace, “Once in a while on graduation day, a graduate from pick-a-state will come to La Grande and it may be the first time that they have been able to set foot on the La Grande campus. Everything else has been done by phone and by e-mail.”

Hobbit Day- Eastern Oregon La GRande

Hobbit Holiday at Eastern Oregon University, La Grande
Photo: Jonas Goodwin

A big part of the problem for rural colleges is that so many young people who grew up in rural areas are eager to move off to cities after high school. “Sometimes, the younger students, they need to see what the rest of Oregon or the rest of the world is like,” says Lund. And young people who grew up in cities may find rural life uncomfortable.

Jason Deuterman’s story for the Battalion, the student newspaper at Texas A&M, earlier this year interviewed both rural and urban students about life in College Station (arguably, a rural environment).

“You have to adjust to a lack of culture within this town,” said Jacqueline Cisneros, a junior from Houston. “It really seems like small town people are more closed-minded because they haven’t experienced other cultures in the same way that someone in the city would,” she said. “In order to be a well-rounded person, you have to be exposed to different people, and my experience with small towns is that you don’t get that.”

Freshman Payton Kane, who grew up outside a town of only 115 people, also feels a long way from home. “Anything that you need you can get here,” in College Station, Kane said. “Back where I’m from, if you needed a doctor for anything other than the common cold, you had to drive to Amarillo.”

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