June 15, 2024

Minnesota Colleges Need To Build Rural Brand

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Minnesota’s effort to keep graduating high school seniors who are college bound from leaving the state received a significant boost from the Legislature this year with the passage of the North Star Promise program.

Starting in the fall of 2024, tuition at public post-secondary schools for students whose family income is less than $80,000 annually will be free, as will be fees.

Competition has increased for Minnesota’s high school students as college enrollments nationwide have fallen in recent years. It is having an impact on our colleges and universities’ ability to keep students at home.

Every year, thousands more college students leave Minnesota than arrive, a Star Tribune analysis of U.S. census data shows. 

“While Minnesota’s higher education institutions do pull many young people from other states, the state overall loses roughly 8,000 more 18-to 24-year-olds each year than it gains,” the Star Tribune reports based on a study of U.S. Census data. Once lost to other states, too many of these young people don’t return. Its data shows the most recent high school graduates, and those just a year out, are more likely to leave the state for their education than stay.

“College students make up nearly two-thirds of the state’s annual net loss in domestic migration,” according to the Star Tribune. “The state exports nearly twice as many first-time college students as it brings in,” it says.

Over time, these numbers get big. In four years, we are losing 32,000 students to other states; in 10 years, 80,000, if the trend holds.

Those losses have an impact on educational institutions trying to maintain student populations that are the bedrock of financing the education they can afford to offer students. It matters to the depth of course offerings available to students. It matters to the future workforce the state’s businesses require to maintain and grow as the Baby Boom generation retires in increasing numbers.

We have been told for years that Minnesota’s population growth is slowed for two primary reasons. First, the rate of births and immigration to the state are offset by older residents leaving for warmer climates as they retire. Second, individuals and businesses are leaving for states where the personal income taxes are lower, and businesses can find a more friendly tax and regulation structure.

But Minnesota’s State Demographer Susan Brower has observed a significant contributor to the state’s slow growth that has received little attention until recently, the Star Tribune reports.

“Migration is being driven by decisions that happen very early on in adult life,” Brower told Star Tribune reporters Jessie Van Berkel and MaryJo Webster. “Think of the late teens in your life, early 20s. They are moving for college, they are moving because they are in love and they are following someone across the country, they’re deciding to go skiing in Colorado.”

There are other reasons not as many students are enrolling in colleges. Rather than assuming tens of thousands of dollars in debt by going to college, they are taking jobs. In Minnesota’s extremely tight jobs market, young people just out of high school can find employment making $50,000 or more with benefits in manufacturing, the building trades, and delivery truck driving.

It’s not surprising that a recent Wall Street Journal/NORC poll found that 56% of adults said a four-year college degree wasn’t worth the cost or effort. That was a 16-percentage point increase from 40% a decade earlier.

Minnesota makes itself a target for colleges nationwide because of its excellent pre-k through high school education standards. They send recruiters here to entice students with promises of good college programs, a change of scenery, and school spirit. They also offer lower costs of education.

Where do many Minnesota high school students head when looking outstate for a post-secondary degree? “North Dakota State University (NDSU) took in the most Minnesotans, followed by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, then the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, state data shows,” according to the Star Tribune.

North Dakota recognizes the threat of Minnesota’s North Star Promise program poses to its college enrollments. Its Legislature is contemplating incentives to make its educational costs competitive against the free tuition offered to Minnesota families. Minnesotans make up 52% of the student body NDSU President David Cook said in urging the N.D. Legislature to act.

It is expected that between 15,000 to 20,000 Minnesota students will take advantage of the North Star Promise each year, the Associated Press reports.

In addition to the financial aid, the University of Minnesota has nearly tripled its number of regional recruiters – to eight. It has also increased its marketing efforts, Robert McMaster, the University of Minnesota’s dean of undergraduate education.

It will have to do much more if it wants to be recognized in rural Minnesota. NDSU and its Bison brand have a pervasive awareness in the state’s rural areas; the U of M not so much. It is on numerous billboards, but even more visible are the number of t-shirts, sweatshirts, and caps with the NDSU logo. 

What is the U of M doing to contact Minnesota’s rural students and raise their awareness of what it offers? What is it doing to make them enthused about attending its schools?

While serving on the National Newspaper Association’s board, we became friends with Jackson, Mississippi, newspaper publisher Bill Jacobs. He told us a story of a local college in his town that had stopped its print advertising. A year later, the school came to him to advertise. It told him that it had a great website promoting itself, but few people were going to it.

Out of sight, out of mind, meant fewer students enrolling.

Rural Minnesota young people participate in numerous sports, music, arts, business, and ag programs in their schools. Their families get the local newspaper. Their school library has a copy. These kids often get their pictures in the newspaper. Imagine if advertisements were promoting the University of Minnesota, or other state schools, in their local newspapers?

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