If more college-bound high school graduates find themselves considering a small university in North Dakota that many of us haven’t heard of before, it’s no coincidence.
Sensing opportunity in the rising cost of tuition in Montana, Dickinson State University in North Dakota has beefed up its recruitment campaign, which is usually limited to radio spots with an emphasis on eastern Montana, to include billboards along Interstate 90 in western Montana near Missoula.
The reason: North Dakota is literally running out of students. For Deb Dazell, director of student recruitment at Dickinson State, the future of the school rests upon her ability to attract price-conscious students from other states, particularly Montana.
“There’s definitely competition [for students] and that’s primarily due to the fact that this region is one of the fastest declining population areas of the U.S.,” Dazell says. “As that trend continues it will get more competitive.”
In the past year, Dr. Peter Froelich, a professor at Dickinson State, has hosted two meetings of the Great Plains Population Symposium, a conference addressing population decline in the Great Plains region, the only region in the country that is losing people.
In particular, the great plains are suffering an exodus of college-age adults, according to Froelich. The Great Plains region includes a swath of states from Montana to Texas between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River.
Depopulation of adults between the ages of 20 and 30 has become an accepted fact in most rural areas, but Stark County, N.D., which includes the city of Dickinson and its university, is suffering the same problem.
“What that says is even with the University we’re having trouble holding onto young adults,” Froelich says. “To me, that spells big trouble. You can’t squeeze all your young people out of a community and expect to survive.”
For a student body of about 2,000—one-quarter of which comes from Montana—Dickinson State provides 50 different major courses of undergraduate study, from English and Business to pre-law and pre-medicine. Dickinson State also boasts Blue Hawk football, the most successful team in its conference.
The 12,000-student University of Montana, however, offers more than twice as many majors and includes professional schools such as law and pharmacy. In addition, UM boasts Griz football, the reigning Division I-AA national champions.
But the most attractive feature of Dickinson State may be its price. Fulltime, out-of-state undergraduates from Montana can expect to pay $3,300 per year for tuition and fees. Meanwhile, the same in-state freshman will pay $3,850 to attend UM this fall.
“When that happens we tend to notice an increase,” Dazell says. “There are not many students and there are a lot of universities.”