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March Mania

OUR OPINION: UND mustn't neglect recruiting

The word "admissions" appeared twice in UND President Robert Kelley's State of the University address, and "recruiting" appeared three times. But that might not be enough.

For freshman recruiting and admissions hit a patch of ice this year, with the 2013 numbers falling 19 percent from 2012, the Herald reported in October.

Admissions numbers go up and down, and one year's results do not make a trend. But that's partly the point: UND must act to make sure the decline does not become a trend.

And the university must do this with some urgency, because a number of factors have added up to shrink whatever margin of error there once was in recruiting the freshman class.

For these reasons, freshman recruiting and admissions may have deserved more attention than they got in Kelley's address. But Kelley is a sharp administrator and likely already is giving the subject the attention it deserves.

Every college faces the annual challenge of recruiting a solid freshman class. It's labor-intensive terrain, calling for UND staff to visit high schools throughout the region, keep on great terms with guidance counselors and shape scholarship and other policies for maximum yield.

But three reasons suggest why this year's numbers mean recruiting now is a special challenge for UND.

The first is -- well, this year's numbers. As mentioned before in this space, enrollment cannot endure many 19 percent drops before concern starts turning to panic. Understand, UND isn't anywhere close to that point yet. But the administration should be dead-set on keeping it that way, and that means fixing whatever went wrong in 2013.

The second concern is the North Dakota demographic challenge, which has made the state's colleges compete for smaller numbers of high school seniors. Luckily, not only has UND surmounted this challenge in the past (in part by recruiting students from Minnesota and other states), but also the North Dakota trends may already have reversed. The energy boom means the number of graduating seniors is likely to go up for years to come.

The third challenge is Pathways for Student Success and the tougher admissions standards for UND and North Dakota State University that the statewide project would require.

As pointed out at a Board of Higher Education meeting last week, 41 percent of the freshmen who entered UND in 2006 would not have been eligible if the standards had been in place then.

So, how should the university system respond? Already there's talk of easing the standards. A better approach might be to delay their implementation by putting them into effect over a longer time. That would let the state's K-12 systems adjust to the new benchmarks as well as give both UND and NDSU the time they'll need to put major scholarship, financial aid, recruiting and other changes in place.

By the way, if enrollment still falls at the end of that time, most North Dakotans likely would see that as an acceptable trade-off. Higher standards should mean higher graduation rates, better job offers for graduates and other good things. If, in order to make those things happen, UND has to become a bit smaller, so be it.

Graduate school enrollments count. But the heart of UND is its undergraduate program. This year's drop in freshman enrollment may be a one-off; but to make sure that's the case, the situation deserves attention at all levels, from the president on down.