Amanda LeBlanc knew she wanted to study game design in college, so when it came time to make a decision about where to go, Fitchburg State University stood out.
Two years ago, Fitchburg State became the first public institution in New England to offer a bachelor's degree in game design as part of its communications media department. Today it is one of the fastest-growing programs at the college.
"What I liked most about Fitchburg is that they connected to me on a personal level,'' said the 20-year-old freshman from Lynn. "I met all the professors, and they were guiding me toward what I needed to do. We're a close-knit community, and I love that. Everyone helps everyone.''
A projected decline in the high school population is forcing Massachusetts' public colleges to work even harder to attract students and help educate the state's future work force. Schools are trying to stand out by offering unique programs, new facilities — or, perhaps, a beautiful campus away from the hustle and bustle of Eastern Massachusetts.
A recent report from the state Board of Higher Education shows that overall undergraduate enrollment is down by 1.8 percent at the state's public colleges and universities since the fall of 2014. Enrollment dipped at the community colleges and state universities but continued to rise in the UMass system.
Massachusetts is one of 15 states located in the Northeast and upper Midwest whose populations of high school students are projected to shrink by more than 5 percent within the next eight years, according to the report.
"Finding some niche programs is important, but it's not just about the programs — the campus has to be different,'' said Sean Ganas, director of admissions at Fitchburg State. "We have renovated our entire campus, so it really has the feel of a private liberal arts college at a public university price. That is how we are differentiating ourselves from other campuses.''
Fitchburg State's undergraduate enrollment dipped by just 12 students this fall, but Ganas said that it also had its largest freshman class ever, and that some programs have had huge gains. Since the fall of 2013, the game design program has grown by 35 percent, biology 20 percent, computer science 71 percent, and criminal justice 33 percent.
Ganas said the numbers show that the college has created programs that not only interest students but also prepare them for future jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math. In fact, the so-called STEM fields account for the largest gains of enrollment at many of the state campuses.
Framingham State University recently held a ribbon-cutting for Hemenway Laboratories, which opened in August and features 16 biology, chemistry, and food science laboratories; an atrium; and several lounge and study areas.
The new facility comes at a time when Framingham State is experiencing large growth in science enrollment. From 2010 to 2014, enrollment in the STEM subjects grew by 58 percent.
"The opening of this facility will help us tremendously,'' said Dan Magazu, a spokesman at the university, which saw its overall undergraduate enrollment decline 3 percent this fall. "It gives us new space and state-of-the-art facilities, and we'll be able to use that as a selling point to get unenrolled students to take another look at STEM.''
The Massachusetts Maritime Academy saw its enrollment rise 12.1 percent, the largest percentage gain reported by any public campus this fall. University of Massachusetts Lowell came in second at 3 percent.
"We are very focused on educating students in the science, technology, engineering and math disciplines and preparing them for dynamic careers in marine-related industries," said Mass. Maritime president and Rear Admiral Francis McDonald in a statement.
At UMass Lowell total undergraduate enrollment has increased 50 percent since 2007, largely in the STEM fields. The majors that have seen the most growth in recent years include computer science (up 97 percent over four years), chemical engineering (up 83 percent), mechanical engineering (up 71 percent), and biological sciences (up 43 percent).
John Ting, vice provost for enrollment at UMass Lowell, agreed that increasing student enrollment is about more than just the degrees offered. While specific majors may draw a student to campus, UMass Lowell has implemented many programs and updated its campus to separate itself from other schools.
The school has increased its international partnerships, giving students more opportunities to study abroad, and added co-ops and internships. It has also started an entrepreneurial education program that introduces new students to the concept of how, by thinking like an entrepreneur, they can develop solutions to issues in business and the community.
"We have done things overall to make people want to come here,'' he said. "There has been a buzz on campus and it has spread to the high school counselors that something is going on here. People are checking out the campus. They are coming and they are staying."
The STEM fields — including biology, chemistry, computer science and mathematics — are the fastest-growing majors at Westfield State University. Interest is also strong in natural and life sciences majors such as environmental sciences, which grew 400 percent over a 10-year period. Westfield State has a new Science and Innovation Center opening in fall 2016.
But Westfield State University President Elizabeth H. Preston said growing enrollment is not just about the programs but the entire campus package, which includes a focus on tutoring and retention.
"Every time I meet with the parents and prospective students during campus admission tours the message I hear again and again is how impressed they are by the quality of our academic programs and our commitment to supporting students on their path to getting a degree,'' she said in a statement.
Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@ yahoo.com.