The University of Montana is experiencing an “enrollment problem” and has taken several steps to reverse the trend, the school’s president told the Montana Board of Regents on Wednesday.
Chancellors and presidents of Montana’s public universities went before the board in Butte during their monthly meeting to present enrollment, spending and other trends that impact each school’s overall budget.
“We do have a problem within the UM affiliation,” UM President Royce Engstrom told regents. “We have an enrollment problem.”
UM saw its enrollment peak in 2011 at 15,669 students, and has steadily decreased by an estimated 1,100 students over the past two years, carrying broad implications for the school’s budget.
At the same time, Montana State University expects its enrollment numbers to top 15,000 for the first time in school history, marking a 21 percent increase since 2010.
The decline anticipated this year at UM pertains only to the Missoula campus, Engstrom noted. The other three UM-affiliated schools remain on track with past enrollment figures.
Engstrom named a variety of factors for the recent decline, including the economy, competition from other schools – both in state and out – and changing demographics in Montana.
“The enrollment decline we’re experiencing at UM is in the resident undergraduate population,” he said. “The enrollment picture is the thing that keeps me awake at night. We have five key actions we’re putting into motion to address enrollment, and resident undergraduates are the target.”
Shifting enrollment impacts the amount of money spent per student and per program. It also brings rapid adjustments to the ratio of students to faculty, administrators and classified employees.
The budget presented by Engstrom included a perceived increase in the number of contract administrators to students. In 2012, the ratio stood at 88.8 students for every administrator. This year, however, it’s projected to hit just 64.6 students per administrator.
“That 24 percent increase in student spending speaks to the tyranny of fixed costs,” said Regent Jeffrey Krauss. “When you build buildings in the good times, you’re stuck with them in the bad times, too. What’s the driving factor in the denominator?”
Engstrom cautioned regents not to fixate on a single year’s enrollment number and the figures that come with it – a statement confirmed by other regents. Numbers rise and fall on any given year, they agreed, regardless of the school.
But several regents weren’t entirely satisfied with UM’s limited ability to retract its expenditures with its decreasing enrollment, no matter how short the timeframe.
The result sparked a philosophical debate among regents over how to bring elasticity to university budgets, allowing for growth when it comes while leaving room for retraction when times are lean.
“There’s going to be times when budgetary challenges arise,” said Regent Todd Buchanan. “Somewhere in this conversation, we need to start asking if there are alternative ways to address the growth issues we’re facing, both in the short and longer term.”
While MSU is currently enjoying an upward trend in enrollment – adding more than 2,400 students since 2010 – several regents noted that UM had enjoyed the same climb until two years ago.
“We’re growing one campus (MSU) and adding lots of infrastructure – the things that will need to be paid for, even in bad times,” Buchanan said. “What’s the long-term guidance we as a system should be offering?
Regents suggested the topic of budgetary flexibility would remain an issue worth revisiting in the months ahead.
Engstrom noted five steps UM is taking to reboot its enrollment numbers.
Among them, he named more focused recruiting, a review of financial aid and how it compares to other schools, and a more “consumer friendly” atmosphere that realizes students have choices.
“I’d appreciate if you’d bring those updates to us as you move forward,” said Regent Major Robinson. “We’re as concerned as you are. We realize there’s been a drop in enrollment for a number of reasons, and with this plan in place, we’d expect to see that change.”
MSU President Waded Cruzado presented a different picture for the Bozeman-based school, one that’s enjoying a resurgence in popularity among in-state students and freshmen.
Cruzado said the school has focused on recruiting more freshmen, more Native Americans and more military veterans. It also has reached out to 144,000 students who attended MSU but failed to earn their degree for whatever reason.
She called the program Return to Learn, and the results have driven up the school’s headcount.
“We’re deliberately approaching those students,” she said. “We’re calling them at their home, asking what they need to graduate.”