Student enrollment at M State - Detroit Lakes is down about 5% since last year, but the COVID-19 pandemic is only partly at fault; the real problem is changing demographics, a school administrator said.

Since 2016, the Minnesota State campuses of Detroit Lakes, Fergus Falls, Moorhead and Wadena have seen an 11% decrease in student enrollment numbers. In 2016, nearly 8,400 students enrolled in the small group of community colleges, but, by 2020, that number had decreased to 7,556.

In Minnesota State colleges across the state, student enrollment has decreased from 130,048 students in 2013 to 116,943 in 2017, a 10% decline.

"We've noticed a dip, year-over-year, as a system . . . just due to economic and demographic changes that have been impacting higher education throughout the nation," said John Maduko, vice president of academic and student affairs at M State - Detroit Lakes.

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He continued: "Birth rate is down. I think people are taking alternative measures when it comes to earning a trade. Pre-pandemic, the economy was good, unemployment was low, so that presents more options for individuals. That definitely factored into the enrollment dip and then, this year, since the pandemic, it's definitely taking a toll."

In recent weeks, the college has moved to a distance learning model. The COVID-19 pandemic has limited the way in which many classes are taught, which has made faculty become extra creative when trying to create an at-home-in-person experience.

"It's a back-and-forth type of reality," said Maduko. "It feels like the target continues to move because I don't think any one of us thought we'd be here based on what unfolded in March."

He said while most of the classes are meeting online, a few career fields require a certain amount of in-person instruction, and hands-on experience, for students to meet their academic, or vocational, certifications. The college has continued these classes, but in a modified form by limiting students' facetime with instructors through appointments, which they use to get hands-on skills training and demonstrate competencies for certifications.

"All of the credit goes to our faculty," said Maduko. "Our faculty who are teaching in disciplines, and programs, that require face-to-face, they have been extremely resourceful . . . some of our faculty have front-loaded the lab work, the hands-on work, in the beginning of the semester anticipating that there would be a surge, or a spike, or disruptions. Our faculty have leveraged GoPros (cameras), and other forms of technology, where they've literally taken their lab and moved it to their own household, and delivered in real-time . . . live instruction to the students."

Maduko also said the success of the faculty being able to pivot with everchanging health conditions, and safety guidelines, to the learning environment shows how deeply they are invested in their students.

"(The faculty) know that many of our students who are aspiring to transfer to a four-year institution, or aspiring to earn their trade, or earn a license, earn their certificate, that it's meaningful and impactful to the lives of our students," he said. "And because of that, our faculty are doing everything they can to ensure the students complete what they started so there isn't a delay in these students' progression into the real-world, into the workforce."

In order to better serve their students in the future, M State will be offering a small selection of Z-degrees, which don't require the students to purchase expensive textbooks, and instead use open educational resources at no charge. The two-year Z-degrees will be offered as an associate of arts transfer degree and a business degree on the M State campuses beginning in the fall semester of 2022.

"Our students are not affluent, most of them, so this makes a big difference," said professor Marcus Lacher, a business and computers faculty member at M State. Lacher submitted the grant application for the Z-degrees program to the state and M State was recently awarded $100,000 through the Minnesota State system office for the new degree programs.

"From a faculty standpoint, once you start seeing your peers start offering it, there's going to be some peer pressure," he said. "We're always looking for a competitive edge . . . sometimes we just need to keep people aware that we're always using innovation."

Lacher said the process of creating the degree plans has been difficult because each degree requires two options for each class, which means he needs to find open resources for between 40 to 50 classes and have faculty members buy-in to the programs by changing their books. Some faculty have been using the same course textbooks for many years.

"I think we are very close on the (associate of arts) degree," said Lacher, "but the business degree is going to take a little bit more time, we're only about halfway through that. We have several courses that need to be developed for that."

M State will be the seventh Minnesota State college to offer Z-degrees.