MSU convocation

Minnesota State University President Richard Davenport speaks during his annual convocation address Monday in the Centennial Student Union Ballroom. Photo by Pat Christman

MANKATO — As Minnesota State University faculty members gear up to celebrate the institution's 150th anniversary, its president says declining enrollment is the greatest threat to its future.

“Every Minnesota institution is going to be fighting for the diminishing pool of students wanting to enroll in Minnesota colleges,” President Richard Davenport said during a convocation speech welcoming faculty to the 2017-18 school year.

Maintaining steady enrollment is key to maintaining financial stability, said Davenport, who is now in his 16th year leading MSU.

“While I have adopted the mantra over the years that it's everyone's job to help increase our enrollment, student retention and graduation rates, it couldn't be more obvious today,” he said. “This goal is first and foremost to assist our students in being successful without diminishing our standards in educational quality.”

After the recession resulted in a bubble of out-of-work new enrollees, enrollment in colleges and universities in the Minnesota State system has declined every year since 2010.

The number of high school graduates are decreasing each year and fewer of those graduates are going to college, Davenport said.

MSU is doing fairly well in attracting new students, the president said. Last year it had the third largest first-year class in its history.

But Davenport said the college needs to improve its retention, especially of undergraduates.

The percent of new MSU undergraduates who stay at and graduate from MSU has improved slightly to 55 percent.

“That's not good enough,” Davenport said. “We have to make that our top priority.”

This fall's total enrollment is down the equivalent of 73 full-time students. Prospective but unconfirmed international students could offset some of that decline, Davenport predicted.

The president said he will focus on reducing the degree completion gap between the university's white students and growing number of minority students. Ten percent fewer minority students are meeting degree success indicators, he said.

“We must identify ways to support student success and degree completion for all of our students and that's a huge challenge.”

Davenport said his other goals include securing state facilities funding and expanding online course offerings.

He said he's confident lawmakers will next session award funds to renovate and repurpose vacant spaces created when departments moved into the new Clinical Sciences Building. He said he will also request but is less optimistic about receiving state funding for planning to build a new Armstrong Hall.

MSU now offers 50 online degree and certificate programs. Davenport said he has asked his administrators to study opportunities to expand the university's online offerings as well as best practices for effective online learning.

“If we're going to engage in online learning, let's make sure it's the best and it's quality and it meets our standards,” he said.