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University of Montana students walk around the Oval between classes on in September 2013.

SOPHIE DANISON/Missoulian

The University of Montana expects to graduate nearly 3,600 students this academic year, the majority of them accepting their diploma during commencement ceremonies planned for Saturday.

But as UM says goodbye to one graduating class – a large one by school standards – officials are keeping a close eye on enrollment trends heading into next fall.

And they like what they’re seeing.

“Right now, our projections for new students are up – they’re optimistic,” said UM Provost Perry Brown. “Every week they’ve stayed ahead of last year, so I would expect to have a bigger class coming in this fall than we’ve had the last two falls.”

While the incoming class may increase in size over what the university has seen the past two years, it’s too soon to say if it will be large enough to compensate for this year’s graduating class.

The registrar’s office estimated that roughly 3,600 students will have graduated from UM this academic year. While the school may see an increase in new student enrollment, it could still see an overall decline in the student body.

“We’re cautiously optimistic this will be a bigger class coming in,” Brown said of fall enrollment. “Whether that’s big enough to counter a large graduation class going out, it’s too soon to say just yet.”

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To boost enrollment, UM recently renewed its contract with RuffaloCODY, a private firm that specializes in identifying and targeting students, and getting them information about the university’s offerings.

Based on incoming applications, Brown said, the efforts appear to be paying off.

“Applications are substantially ahead of last year’s number, and the number of applicants we’ve accepted are ahead of last year,” Brown said. “Every single week we’ve been ahead, and that’s a good sign.”

Dawn Ressel, associate vice president for planning, budgeting and analysis, said that among traditional freshmen students, UM had received 1,787 indications of interest from resident students and 2,504 from nonresident students as of last Friday.

That’s up from 1,365 residents and 2,397 nonresidents showing interest by the same point last year, marking an increase of more than 400.

On applications received, UM saw 1,613 resident students as of last Friday and 2,185 nonresidents. Last year at this time, 1,256 resident students had applied and 2,298 nonresidents.

“Everything we look at shows us we’re headed in right the direction,” Ressel said.

Despite the uptick in applications, Brown said the university will continue taking a conservative approach to next’s year’s fiscal budget. He said it will be based on the same number students the university had last year.

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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