For the third consecutive year, the University of Montana has enrolled a record number of students, this time surpassing 15,000.
UM announced Monday that its fall semester student headcount is 15,642, which is 721 more students than a year ago.
That's the largest yearly spike in enrollment at Missoula's main campus and the UM College of Technology in the past two decades.
"It's the largest one-year increase I've seen since I've been here," said President George Dennison.
Somewhat surprisingly, UM's main campus saw slightly larger increases than the COT. Last year, with the economy down and local mills closing, laid-off workers returned to school for retraining at the COT at a higher rate than the main campus. This year, it appears full-time resident undergraduate students at the main campus produced the big enrollment jump.
That's not to say the economy isn't a big factor in the enrollment increases, Dennison said.
There are also a record number of UM students taking full class loads this semester, at 13,367 - an increase of 365 resident students and 153 nonresidents over last fall.
"A good part of this happened because students listened to what (President Barack) Obama and others have been saying ... that to prepare themselves for the 21st century, you better go to college," Dennison said.
The only sector to see a drop was students enrolled in distance learning.
Distance learning rose rapidly in the past several years, but Dennison is not convinced the numbers are at a plateau. He remains positive that UM will pick up more students taking classes online in the spring.
Preliminary reports from UM Western, Montana Tech and UM Helena College of Technology show enrollment at those campuses are up as well, Dennison said.
In 2008 and 2009, UM reached enrollment records.
However, 2008 was the last year that the Montana University System used enrollment as the driving factor in determining allocation of state funds to campuses. Since then, money has been tight at the state level and the universities have been lucky to get their base budgets and inflation expenses covered based on 2008 enrollment numbers.
At last week's Board of Regents meeting, the board gave the green light to higher education officials exploring different approaches to funding Montana's colleges and universities, taking into consideration factors other than enrollment, such as performance-based criteria like course completion.
Tuition is covering the cost of educating more students at UM, but the campus is also saving money by hiring adjunct professors to teach additional classes and only hiring tenured faculty when someone resigns or retires, Dennison said.
Part of the reason, too, that UM has seen higher enrollments is the result of more aggressive recruiting efforts.
For example, for the past several years, Dennison has written letters to high school freshmen in western Montana letting them know UM's college requirements and sharing with them his story of becoming a first-generation college graduate.
So, who didn't come to UM?
That kind of question is one university officials will be trying to figure out in the coming weeks, as well as analyzing the gender, ethnicity and geographic location of these new UM students.
Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.