Bucking college enrollment trends in the U.P.

Something surprising is happening at two Upper Peninsula universities. Something good, but surprising. 

Enrollment at Michigan Technological University (MTU) and Northern Michigan University (NMU) is going up, while enrollment is declining at many other small universities and colleges in Michigan and across the country.  In the 2022-23 academic year, MTU’s enrollment was up 3.53 percent, and NMU saw a 3.26 percent increase.  Both universities saw upticks last fall as well.

Across Michigan in the 2022-2023 academic year, eight of the state’s 15 public universities saw drops in enrollment, while seven – including MTU and NMU – saw increases.

MTU saw the highest increase, and NMU was close behind. While up, the increase in enrollment at Michigan State and the University of Michigan was noticeably smaller than MTU’s and NMU’s: 2.58 percent at Michigan State and 1.64 percent at the University of Michigan. 

“Increased enrollment in the larger universities and decreased enrollment in the smaller ones is a national phenomenon, especially in the Midwest and Northeast,” says Dan Hurley, CEO of the Michigan Association of State Universities (MASU). “The larger ones have more visibility and a national and global brand.” 

Demographics play a role. A shrinking number of high school graduates is one factor in decreasing enrollment, but there’s another, often unrecognized factor. Fewer high school graduates even want to go to college. They are heading straight into the workforce instead.

“The availability of entry-level jobs with decent wages can be very attractive for young people unsure about college or university,” explains Alec Thomson, a professor of history and political science at Schoolcraft College in Livonia and vice president of the National Council for Higher Education

Schoolcraft College, a public community college in Livonia, near Detroit, saw several terms of declining enrollment, particularly during the COVID pandemic, says Thomson, but for the past two terms, enrollment has been headed back up.  

Bucking the trend

So why are MTU and NMU bucking that trend, with steadily rising enrollment even though they are small and remote? 

What are these universities doing differently from many of Michigan’s other small universities? What are they doing right? Preparation for well-paying jobs and the appeal of outdoor activities seem to be two of the most important attractions for students there. The opportunity for hands-on learning in small classes that offer close interaction with faculty is another factor.

MTU fills a niche market, offering students hands-on technical knowledge and the skills to find the increasingly high-tech and specialized jobs of today’s world.

A career fair at Michigan Technological University in Houghton.

“Our top-tier programs, hands-on research and close proximity to faculty translates into incredibly high demand for our students by employers,” says John Lehman, vice president of university relations and enrollment at Michigan Tech.  “That’s what draws students here, and it’s also what draws job recruiters to our graduates.”

Skyler Spitzley, a third-year operations and supply chain management major from Ovid, believes that a Michigan Tech education will help her get a good job. “My education here is helping my soft skills that employers look for,” she says. “It has also allowed me to be a leader, find my voice and gain the real- world experience that I need to succeed in the real world.”

Spitzley also likes the fact that MTU academics are challenging. “Studying at Tech has allowed me to challenge myself by thinking critically,” she says. “It has allowed me to try and fail and try again. Learning and thinking critically will help me get the job I want because I can approach a problem, fail, and try again.” 

MTU graduates’ early career salaries rank in the top 20 for public institutions in the nation, Lehman pointed out.  

NMU has a different but equally compelling appeal.

Derek Hall, chief marketing officer at NMU, says the university appeals to students because of its affordability and market-driven academic programs like social media design management, forensics anthropology and cosmetology. 

“It comes down to access,” Hall says. “NMU is an accessible option for both resident and non-resident students.”

It’s not that the two universities don’t face some enrollment challenges. Declining numbers of high school graduates and family finances present difficulties that institutions of higher education in Michigan and across the country are facing.
State aid

Michigan, however, is taking steps to address the financial issue. Last fall, the state established the Michigan Achievement Scholarship, which guarantees scholarship aid at any institution of higher education in the state to any Michigan high school graduate who earns a high enough score on the college entry ACT test and demonstrates financial need. 

Students can receive up to $2,750 per year to attend a Michigan community college for up to three years. They can receive up to $4,000 per year for up to five years to attend a private college or university in Michigan and up to $5,500 to attend a public university for up to five years. 

Cosmetology students at Northern Michigan University in Marquette.

“That can cover 30 to 45 percent of tuition,” MASU’s Hurley points out. The scholarship opens the college door to more students from lower- and middle-income families. Lehman calls the program “an impressive investment in the students of Michigan that is helping offset the prevailing demographic headwinds.” 

The Michigan Achievement Scholarship is one of the efforts the state is taking to achieve what it calls 60 by 30. The goal is to increase the number of working-age adults in Michigan who have a college degree or a skill certificate from today’s 50.5 percent to 60 percent by 2030.

“The Michigan Achievement Scholarship will strive to make this goal a reality by making college more affordable for students and families,” says the scholarship website. 

The Great Outdoors

It's not only the kind of education they can receive that attracts students to MTU and NMU. The plethora of year-round outdoor activities in Marquette and Houghton also draws students who like the snow and winter sports, who love to ski, snowmobile, snowboard, skate and snowshoe. It also attracts mountain biking, hiking and camping enthusiasts. 

NMU’s Derek Hall thinks that easy access to outdoor recreation opportunities and outdoor labs and classrooms attracts students to the university. 
“Marquette’s year-round outdoor recreation opportunities are a big attraction for incoming students,” he says.

Nick Jones, a graduate student in business administration at NMU, agrees. Ask him what attracted him to Northern Michigan University, and he doesn’t hesitate.

"Location, location, location,” he says. “The U.P. is beautiful and has a little something for everyone. Whether it is the outdoors, the lake or the people, there really is something here for everyone.” 

Jones is from downstate. Taylor Ragusett, on the other hand, is a Marquette resident who wanted to stay right there so she can live at home without paying extra housing costs. Her parents are both alumni of NMU, so it was a natural choice. “I was born to be a Wildcat,” says the senior in social media design management.  

Field work being done through Michigan Technological University.

What does the future hold for these two small universities and others throughout Michigan and the nation? 

“The crystal ball is fairly cloudy these days,” Hall says. 

Large institutions are expanding their admissions and pulling students away from smaller, lower-tiered schools, Thomson warns, “but it is not as clear that these students are well-equipped to succeed in the new settings.” 

In response, he says, smaller schools—especially community colleges—are expanding their outreach via dual enrollment programs. 

It is clear that universities — large and small — are working hard to find ways to make and keep their campuses attractive to students from the U.P., throughout Michigan and farther away. 

Jennifer Donovan is a reporter with more than 40 years of experience on daily newspapers, magazines and university writing and editing. She is retired as director of news and media relations at Michigan Technological University and lives in Houghton.
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