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Breaking down UND numbers reveals enrollment trends

GRAND FORKS — The University of North Dakota's total fall enrollment sits at one of its lowest points so far this decade, but a university admissions leader says there's more to the number than meets the eye.

Even at an apparent ebb, UND director of admissions Jason Trainer said the school is still within its average range of students. The institution is also posting evidence of some modest growth over the past 10 years as it watches the outflow of its largest enrollment year on record, a 15,250-student total headcount in 2012 that marked a peak both in the past decade and in the history of the institution.

Trainer says the main headcount — what he calls "the big number" — is useful as a quick reference for the size of the institution as a whole. It doesn't tell the whole story, though.

"For our day-to-day stuff, it's not a benchmark that we look at in the recruiting process," said Trainer. The straight number of enrollments might also obscure some important trend — one being the rising tide of online students.

Trainer said distance-only education accounts for 24 percent of the student population at UND, a level that comes out to a real number of about 3,537. That digital set breaks down to 17 percent of undergraduates and 53 percent of all graduate students.

To take a step back, the fall 2017 total headcount — a number that combines undergraduates with graduate and certificate-seeking students — now sits at a little over 14,400. According to a set of UND data outlining the university population back over the past 10 years, that headcount rests a little higher than that recorded in 2010.

The data set also includes full-time equivalent enrollments, a statistic that breaks the total number down even further to show the compiled students taking 15 credits. That credit load is chosen to reflect the average per semester needed to graduate a student in four years.

For 2017, the FTE enrollments sit at about 10,275, but that more specific enrollment number hasn't actually changed much over the 10-year window. In 2007, there were 9,976 FTE students at UND. The total headcount that year was slightly less than 12,560.

The FTE enrollments provide a layer of specificity that guides some deeper insights into the demographic at UND, but Trainer still favors a more holistic set of data. He points to the number of incoming freshmen as a more telling guide to the growth potential of the university, and, for recruiting, said the rates of retention and graduation can be more helpful metrics of institutional success. Trainer says both of those have shown improvement over the 10 years of the data set, with retention between freshman and sophomore year — the highest risk period for drop-outs and transfers — showing a boost from 75 to 81 percent kept at UND.

Beyond institution-specific analysis, Trainer also says the deeper read of enrollment numbers is reflective of some national trends in higher education. The disparity between the two statistics of headcount and FTE is due primarily to the school's population of part-time students, a group that includes those who fall outside the traditional student profile of ages 18-24. Students like that are increasingly common in the mix of those who now enroll in programs across the country.

The enrollment numbers show a changing picture of higher education in North Dakota. When taken as a whole, Trainer thinks they bode well for UND.

"What you see is obviously some growth over last 10 to 20 years for sure in the total headcount," he said. "I'm also seeing a stabilization of the undergraduate traditional population and growth in some of the nontraditional venues." As for the growing number of digital students, Trainer believes the statistics at UND reveal programs that "speak to the working professional" — a pool increasingly targeted by higher education.

Andrew Haffner

Andrew Haffner covers higher education and general assignment stories for the Grand Forks Herald. He attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he studied journalism, political science and international studies. He previously worked at the Dickinson Press.

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