State of The University Address: Enrollment down, retention up

Jayasuriya declares goal to double student numbers

Photo by Deb Gau Southwest Minnesota State University President Kumara Jayasuriya speaks during the state of the university address.

MARSHALL – As colleges and universities saw enrollment numbers drop during the COVID pandemic, it looked like Southwest Minnesota State University was going to buck the trend. But after two years, SMSU’s streak of enrollment increases has come to an end.

“You can’t increase indefinitely,” SMSU President Kumara Jayasuriya said. “Compared with other system schools, we are doing much better,” he said. But enrollment numbers at SMSU were still down 4.7% this fall.

The decrease amounted to a loss of about 68 students from the university’s headcount, he said.

In his State of the University Address on Friday, Jayasuriya discussed enrollment, as well as laying out goals to recruit more students to SMSU.

“We think we can double our enrollment in five years,” he said. However, it was a task that would take teamwork. “I need all of your help. It’s not me that’s doing this, it’s all of you working hard. Everybody on this campus, even the city of Marshall, has a role to play.”

Jayasuriya said a cohort of 333 students started college at SMSU this fall. The average fall cohort size in recent years was around 350 students, he said. Last year’s cohort had 427 students.

“So, 333 is not bad, but that’s not where we want to be,” Jayasuriya said.

Enrollment wasn’t down across all groups of SMSU students. Enrollment in online classes was up this year, to about 750 students. However, most of the university’s online students aren’t taking full course loads, Jayasuriya said.

“Enrollment of international students was down. I think there are several reasons for it,” Jayasuriya said. “One is our visa approval rate was down. And many students didn’t get get visa appointments for some reason. I think maybe some countries are still closed. But we are looking at ways to change that.”

Graduate student enrollments were also down, partly due to price competition from another school, Jayasuriya said.

The number of student athletes enrolling at SMSU was also down this year. But Jayasuriya said the university knew that would be happening, because a large number of football players were approved last year.

On the positive side, SMSU is retaining more students, he said.

“Retention rates went up from 63% to 67.1%,” Jayasuriya said. “It was hovering around 70% for a while, but just one student from the cohort dropping out can make a big difference in our retention rate.”

Jayasuriya said retention rates for students of color and Black and African-American students increased this year, to rates of over 60%. But while it was good to see retention increase for those student groups this year, Jayasuriya said it also meant retention was below average in recent years.

“We need to work on that,” he said.

Retention also increased this year for other student groups, including first-generation college students and male students.

Jayasuriya said the goal for SMSU will be to increase overall enrollment by 7% next year, and increase freshman enrollment by 5%. Another goal will be to raise student retention to 70%. Jayasuriya said that wasn’t too far off from what university retention rates had been before the start of the academic year.

“I truly believe this can be achieved,” he said.


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