NMU enrollment drops 9% in 5 years

Mike Klarin

Enrollment continues to drop for the fifth year in a row, as administrators rush to reinvent the university’s public image while taking steps to cauterize the hemorrhage of recent graduates. The student body for fall of 2009 numbered 9,428; it now sits at 8,592 a — 9 percent drop.

According to a statistical report compiled by Collegedata.com, the average year brings no shortage of applicants to NMU, but a large number of those accepted choose to attend other institutions when it comes time to make a decision.

Gerri Daniels, director of admissions, explained that it’s not uncommon to lose a hefty percentage of the applicant pool each year. The national yield rate of retention at universities nationwide is between 25 and 40 percent, according to Daniels, which actually puts NMU closer to the top of the national average. Still, measures are being taken to boost retention.

“Once students are admitted, our admissions counselors work hard to help students and families get all the information they need to see if Northern is the right fit for them,” Daniels said. “It’s always been a part of our process to build relationships [with potential enrollees], so we continually look for ways to make that relationship start earlier, whether it be through social media or with personalized emails during the application process.”

Declining enrollment is not a disease endemic to NMU, however. Both the National Student Clearinghouse, which keeps track of enrollment for 96 percent of the country, and U.S. News and World Report magazine points to smaller high school classes around the country as a major contributing factor.

According to both sources, the economy is also to blame, as college head-counts peaked during the recession with more people staying in school to avoid the abysmal job market, combined with those who were out of work and returning for a career change. Now, with the economy recovering steadily, the opposite is taking place–and it shows.

Enter Steve Neiheisel, Ph.D, vice president of enrollment and student services. With 25 years of management experience, he’s worked in a similar capacity at other universities. Neiheisel echoed the National Student Clearinghouse.

“The 10th-day report is consistent with our original projections,” Neiheisel said. “We knew undergraduate numbers would be down because of a continuing decline in high school demographics, an improving economy and a record number of degrees awarded last May.”

The report goes out twice a year, in the fall and winter semesters, wherein enrollment data is collected to establish trends. Initial readings for the fall of 2014 showed 8,592 enrolled, a 3.3 percent decline from last year’s headcount of 8,918. On the contrary, marked increases were found in other areas, with international enrollment up 10 percent and graduate enrollment up 18.6 percent.

In spite of the disconcerting trend, Neiheisel contends there is no “magic number” the school needs to attain. What is important, he said, is achieving a balance between incoming admissions and outgoing graduates, the lack thereof being responsible for the larger than normal drop in enrollment this fall.

Furthermore, the university is in the process of expanding online course offerings, with initial reports showing strong interest. This measure is intended to provide an alternative for potential students who could not otherwise attend classes in a traditional brick and mortar setting. This fall, the online master’s in public administration (MPA) degree attracted 37 more students than last year, a potential sign that NMU is successfully reaching a previously untapped market.

In the graduate studies arena, four new programs of study in education and science have been added to the curriculum to meet growing student needs. In addition, NMU’s doctoral program in nursing has accepted its first applicants, which contributed to the increase in graduate enrollments.

With all the changes in progress, combined with the rollout of NMU’s new rebranding effort, Dr. Neiheisel expressed optimism that future enrollment figures will begin to rebound.

“Overall, there is good reason to expect that Northern can counter the national trend of declining enrollment,” Neiheisel said. “We plan to build on our quality programs and student experiences with an enhanced and further-reaching image that emphasizes compelling stories of courage and success demonstrated by students, alumni, and employees.”