Jayasuriya: SMSU setting the bar higher for student retention, enrollment

Photo by Deb Gau SMSU President Kumara Jayasuriya speaks to university employees and area community members on Friday during his State of the University address.

MARSHALL — Southwest Minnesota State University faced a lot of new challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, and even got through it all with an increase in enrollment. But there are still challenges that remain, said SMSU President Kumara Jayasuriya.

In Friday’s State of the University address, Jayasuriya said he was setting goals to improve student retention, and increase overall enrollment by 4%.

It’s setting a high bar, even after two years of growth, he said.

“When enrollment is going up, it’s really difficult to keep going up,” Jayasuriya said. “But I think our team will come out ahead of this goal.”

During Friday’s address, Jayasuriya also announced a $250,000 gift to the university from the Bob Lockwood family, and the naming of the Elizabeth Lockwood Alumni Visitor Center, located across East College Drive from the main SMSU campus.

Over the past couple of years, SMSU has had both achievements and challenges, Jayasuriya said.

“It’s very difficult to talk about our past, present and future without talking about the pandemic,” Jayasuriya said. “We had to turn our campus into a virtual campus on a dime.” Jayasuriya said he was grateful for the university faculty, staff and Information Technology workers who kept classes going and transformed the campus into one that supported hybrid and virtual learning.

“It shined a bright light on the humanity and the resilience of Mustang Nation. We kept working,” he said.

SMSU was also the only university in the Minnesota State system to come out of the pandemic with increases in enrollment. Last year, the university’s overall enrollment was up 0.5%, and this year’s overall fall enrollment was up 2.5%. The number of students in the fall 2021 freshman cohort was up 20.6% from last year, Jayasuriya said.

“That is remarkable,” he said. “When enrollment is up, that lifts all (university) departments, and the community.”

SMSU’s new student recruitment and academics have expanded online over the past two years. Jayasuriya said the university currently offers 14 degrees online.

On the other hand, while the number of students enrolling at SMSU grew, the university retained fewer students during the pandemic. In 2020 the student retention rate was the highest it had been in 20 years, at 74%, Jayasuriya said. But in 2021, retention fell to 63%.

“We have to get that back up to 70%,” he said. “Retention is everyone’s business.”

Jayasuriya said he was also setting a goal of increasing overall enrollment by 4%, and increasing next year’s freshman enrollment by 5%.

Other goals Jayasuriya announced included a $5 million fundraising goal for the SMSU Foundation, and reducing achievement gaps in historically underserved student populations.

“This is one of the big problems in the whole country,” he said of the achievement gap.


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