Enrollment at the University of Montana dropped this fall more than officials originally reported, 6.5 percent in one year rather than 4.3 percent.
As a result, UM will receive $3 million less in revenue, and will need to adjust expenditures, said Peggy Kuhr, vice president for integrated communications.
However, in projecting its headcount, UM came within 1 percent of its forecast, she said Wednesday. Last spring, UM projected the fall enrollment at 13,181, and the actual number was 13,044.
Last fall, the headcount was 13,952.
Enrollment has been a struggle for UM in recent years, and higher education officials have attributed the decrease in Missoula to overall demographic trends, as well as the global economy steering interest toward engineering.
UM officials stress that other factors, such as donations and national rankings, reflect a robust institution.
The slide in student population is hurting the bottom line, though. The additional $3 million hit this school year comes on top of the UM budget absorbing a $5.7 million shortfall forecast in May.
The additional decline in enrollment comes as UM attempts to calculate a more precise headcount, according to Kuhr and Dawn Ressel, associate vice president in the UM Office of Planning, Budget and Analysis.
One class of students is the wildcard in the equation, and for the past three years, UM has been adjusting the way it accounts for them in its enrollment. Those are "cancellations."
In general, some students show up, but they don't pay their bills or make arrangements to do so, Kuhr said. They can't attend school indefinitely, though, so UM cancels them in its system.
Over the past three years, UM has handled cancellations differently. In 2013, it canceled everyone who hadn't made full payments or planned to pay in full by the 15th day of the school year, Ressel said.
But it found many of those students actually did intend to pay, she said. In response, UM refrained from cancelling students in 2014, and it worked long into the semester to help students arrange payments.
UM may have overcompensated in doing so, though; the headcount still wasn't on the money.
This fall, UM put more resources into the students who hadn't paid, and it did so in the month of September, Kuhr said. In response to "heightened interest" in enrollment, it released preliminary data as soon as President Royce Engstrom gave the green light.
Then, UM later modified its headcount on the planning and budget website.
UM wants to avoid confusion and lack of clarity, Kuhr said. She said it will continue to calibrate the way it accounts for cancellations in an attempt to best measure headcount and articulate accurate information to the public.
One strategy it might employ next year is delaying the release of enrollment data a couple weeks in order to present a realistic picture. Kuhr said the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education requires campuses to submit enrollment figures two weeks after the 15th day of the school year.
At this point, she said she doesn't know if UM will return to its 2013 method of counting. Ressel, though, said she believes the process UM used this year closely reflects reality, but it requires a couple more weeks of preparation time.