Despite downward trends in enrollment at schools in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, Central Lakes College is moving in the opposite direction.

Full year equivalent, or FYE, enrollment declined by 2.4% overall in the system’s 37 colleges and universities from the fall of 2018 to fall of 2019.

“Minnesota State continues to experience a dip in enrollment that is consistent with economic and demographic trends that are impacting public higher education throughout the region and across the country,” Minnesota State Chancellor Devinder Malhotra said in a statement. “Our colleges and universities remain focused on the success of our students, our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and financial and programmatic sustainability.”

That dip, however, has not hit CLC, where FYE enrollment increased 1.4% this year from the previous fall.

FYE enrollment measures full-time students by counting credits, as opposed to a general headcount, which includes students only taking one or two classes.

“You always love to have as many students as you possibly can on your campus, and so headcount is important in that way, but certainly FYE is kind of the leading indicator in terms of what your enrollment actually is,” said Paul Preimesberger, dean of enrollment and student success at CLC, during a phone interview Wednesday, Oct. 23.

To calculate FYE, the total credits taken by students at CLC in one semester is divided by 15, while total credits taken for the year is divided by 30.

Fall 2017 to fall 2018 saw an even larger FYE increase at 2.1%, though Preimesberger said administrators knew it would be difficult to continue that kind of growth each year.

“Knowing that that was going to be hard to sustain every year after year after year, really our goal this year was to just kind of maintain that existing level, and so that we’re actually above that is awesome,” he said. “We exceeded our goal in that way.”

And CLC’s movement against the grain compared to other state colleges and universities in terms of enrollment is not lost on Preimesberger.

“We feel like it certainly has something to do with our institution and the types of efforts we’re making to get students on campus and retain them,” he said, noting various programs, new and old, likely contributed to CLC’s enrollment.

New this year are four transfer pathway programs in psychology, exercise science, economics and sociology. Through these programs, students can take a certain combination of courses at CLC that will then transfer into an equivalent program at a participating university.

Preimesberger believes those programs have contributed to this year’s increased enrollment, along with CLC’s emphasis on affordability for students.

“We really understand that college can be expensive for students and families,” he said. “And so we are very sensitive to that.”

Open educational resources are one way CLC works to cut down on student costs by providing free online resources for students instead of costly textbooks, the costs of which can be hard to plan for.

“In fact, we have such a number of OER (open educational resources) courses that a student can actually get an AA degree and not pay for a single textbook,” Preimesberger said. “And we refer to that frequently as our Z Degree, meaning zero cost degree.”

The Central Lakes College Foundation gave out 770 scholarships last year, for a total of $375,000, to further help students out financially. And about 70% of students receive financial aid through the school as well.

For students Martha Sanguma and Drew Peterson, CLC’s low cost was a draw to the school. Both live near campus and decided to stay local for their first two years of school.

“I decided it would be way easier to just save money by still living with my parents and then getting my AA done,” Sanguma said, adding she heard nothing but good things from other CLC students.

Alyssa Kearns, Jasmine Cory and Jarrett Osborne are saving money, too, as high school students taking a full course load at CLC through the postsecondary enrollment options program, meaning they’ll graduate high school with an associate’s degree.

The three are enjoying college life.

“It’s a lot easier to talk in front of class because you don’t feel like everyone’s judging you for being wrong about something,” Cory said.

Osborne added the campus offers more quiet study spaces than a traditional high school.

For out-of-town student William Wulf, it was a specific program -- natural resources law enforcement -- that brought him to CLC. Coming from the Twin Cities, Wulf said CLC was one of a few -- but his best option -- in the state for his career path.

Other law enforcement students from the area said they heard positive feedback on CLC’s program and noted it was a good, close option for the program, with Alexandria being the next closest location.

Another initiative launched this year Preimesberger believes has helped enrollment is the focus on communicating with students over the summer to combat the “summer melt.”

The summer melt, he said, is what happens when students sign up for classes months before school starts but, for whatever reason, never show up in the fall.

One way to combat that unfavorable phenomenon was ramped up communications and the addition of texting to the school’s communication module to send reminders and prompts to the students throughout the summer.

CLC also hosted an All Set for Fall event in July, where students and families could come ask any last-minute questions and make sure everything was set for the fall semester.

“We feel like that really made a positive difference,” Preimesberger said.

Aside from all the new initiatives, Preimesberger said enrollment in the school’s legacy programs -- like robotics, heavy equipment and nursing -- remain steady and continue to shine as programs CLC is known for throughout the state.

He also pointed to the expansive selection of athletics, arts and other student activities available at CLC to help give students a four-year college experience.

“We know that CLC offers a really, really great experience for students of all ages to advance their career path, to advance their educational path, and that’s why we’re all in this business,” Preimesberger said. “We love contributing to students’ making their way toward their future. To think that we get to be a part of that is really fulfilling, and to think that we seem to be doing it well … we’re just to the moon on that.”