Tuition in Montana is still a deal compared to other states in the region, according to Montana University System data.
Fees have gone up, but tuition has stayed flat for eight years at the two-year colleges and for six years at the four-year campuses, said Tyler Trevor, deputy commissioner for planning and analysis at the Montana University System.
"There's really no state in the nation that is going to be able to keep up with us in holding down the cost of resident tuition," Trevor said. "That's pretty good."
At its most recent meeting, the Montana Board of Regents approved another couple years of stable tuition for residents, and the board also received data on enrollment trends.
The numbers include a dip at the University of Montana in the last decade, a spike at Missoula College, and a jump at Montana State University.
In the last decade, enrollment at all the schools combined has gone up by 10 percent, according to the MUS data counting student FTE by campus (full-time equivalent). However, it dropped the last three years in a row, including 1.9 percent in the last year.
At MSU, enrollment grew 25 percent from 2005 to 2015, according to the data. At UM, however, it dropped 6 percent over the same time period.
The decline at UM can be attributed to several factors, Trevor said. First, he said, the number of resident students has dropped in the last three years based on natural demographics, and the annual decreases have compounded.
"We're feeling the full effect of the decline in resident students," Trevor said.
The dip hit UM harder than it hit Bozeman, he said. In the last 10 years, MSU increased its resident students by about 400, and Missoula decreased by some 800.
Anytime a recession hits, he said, students steer toward majors that are related to the hard sciences, such as engineering.
"Bozeman just happens to have a lot of that. Not to say that UM doesn't, but there's more to offer there at MSU," Trevor said.
At the same time, he said, the dip flattens out some at UM when numbers include the enormous growth in enrollment at Missoula College. It jumped a whopping 62 percent in the last decade, an increase that took place in the years after the recession and before the "serious drop" in high school graduates, he said.
The data show a difference in the flagship universities' recruitment of non-resident students as well. In the last decade, UM has grown those numbers by 200, but MSU has increased the same population by 2,000.
"MSU has been able to do a heckuva job. That's really kind of amazing, the number of non-resident students they're able to attract," he said.
A lot of the increase took place from 2008 to 2012, he said. In those years, the recession was on people's minds, and he believes MSU did well in part because its curriculum was appealing in the years after the recession.
For residents, though, tuition and fees in Missoula are cheaper than in Bozeman.
Tuition and fees for an undergraduate in Missoula cost $6,099, according to MUS data; rates are for a full-time student in the academic year. Trevor said the amount does not include minimal fee increases the regents recently approved.
In Bozeman, by comparison, tuition and fees are $6,801, some 12 percent more than in Missoula.
Trevor said fees have continued to go up, but because they amount to roughly a quarter of the equation, the overall increase is slim. A maximum increase in fees based on the consumer price index might amount to some $20, whereas a typical 5 percent increase on tuition would be some $200.
"So we're holding the bulk of the costs flat," Trevor said.
On the other hand, non-resident tuition at UM is $10,595.40 for undergraduate students in the regular 2016 school year, not including fees, and it's the highest non-resident cost of the four-year campuses. It's $10,161.60 in Bozeman, and both campuses will increase tuition in 2017.
At UM, vice president Peggy Kuhr said the campus shifted its recruitment strategy in the fall of 2013.
UM is visiting high schools in Montana at least once a year, increasing the number of publications it sends out, and increasing the contacts it has with prospective students, Kuhr said. It also has started to raise more money for scholarships.
Increasingly, it's focusing on bringing international students to UM, and it reported a record number of those students last fall, 832, she said.
Missoula also is starting to push itself as a school that's strong in the sciences, not just in liberal arts. At UM, physics and astronomy is a nationally recognized program, Kuhr said.
In the past, UM recruited based on the quality of life in Missoula, and now, it's more focused on presenting academic excellence, she said.
It's pushing its expertise in five areas: health, such as pre-med, exercise sciences, and pharmacy; sciences, such as chemistry, physics, and biological sciences; creative arts; business and entrepreneurship; environment, such as the journalism master's, environmental law, wildlife biology, and tourism and conservation.
"Yes, we recruit because this is a wonderful place to live and study and play, but you're really coming here for the academics," Kuhr said.