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Tom Crady, the University of Montana's new vice president for enrollment management and student affairs, discusses on campus Friday the drop in enrollment at UM.

KIRA VERCRUYSSEN, Missoulian

A top enrollment official at the University of Montana believes recruitment will remain a top priority for the campus. 

Enrollment at UM has dropped and caused budget woes in recent years, and lack of money is one reason a task force at UM is evaluating campus priorities and ranking programs.

This week, the task force didn't rank two enrollment units as priorities for growth despite a concerted call from UM's leaders that enrollment is a critical goal.

Tom Crady, the vice president for enrollment and student affairs who came on board the summer of 2016 to start turning around admissions, said after the task force's votes that he still believes people on campus are committed to enrollment.

"I will respond to the recommendations of the (priorities) committee, but I can clearly show that we are making positive changes," Crady said.

At the task force meeting, faculty representative Andrew Ware argued against rating the enrollment and admissions office as a top priority for investment, saying he did not believe the money had been well spent there.

The task force agreed, voting to rank two enrollment units for "consideration for development and/or modification." UM has not yet made the final vote counts available to the public.

This semester, the task force will deliver recommendations to UM President Sheila Stearns, who will set a course for action following input from unit leaders, the Faculty Senate, Staff Senate, and Associated Students of the University of Montana.

So the task force's choice against deeming enrollment units top priorities is by no means final. Ware noted he is hopeful about the changes Crady is making and also looking forward to the vice president's response to the task force, which will inform its recommendation to the president.

***

This week, Crady said he doesn't blame the task force for its decision.

"Up until this past year, there's been a lot of frustration with enrollment because people have not hit their targets," Crady said. "The difference this year is ... we had so many new strategies that we put into place, not only on the admissions side, but also on the financial aid side."

And the vice president said those strategies are working.

This year, UM counted 2 percent more freshman than it did last fall, a key target to stabilize its total enrollment in the long run. Overall enrollment still slipped some 4.5 percent because of the large size of the 2017 graduating class.

"I'm a data person, and I believe that the data speaks for itself, and I think that's a strong argument to continue what we're doing right now," Crady said this week. "So it's not me saying, 'Hey, I think.' It's me saying, 'Hey, here's the data.' That's huge."

The 2 percent increase in freshman represents just 24 more students, or a freshman class of 1,292 compared to 1,268. But Crady earlier said the uptick is significant given the steep slide in recent years, when UM was losing 200 incoming students each fall.

This year, UM hit its $39.8 million target in tuition revenue, and then surpassed it by $700,000, Crady said. He said it did so within the confines of its budget, saving 50 percent for the spring semester.

"The financial aid strategies worked that we implemented," he said.

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The additional revenue is key for UM, Crady said. The state is working through a shortfall, and the Montana Legislature meets next week to decide how to patch the budget. As proposed, higher education would see only a 1 percent cut, and that could translate to some $600,000 at UM.

"The institution needs that money right now with these possible changes in the legislature," Crady said.

At a news conference Thursday, President Stearns shared an update on the prioritization process. She didn't directly address the task force's decision to omit enrollment units from UM's top priorities for growth, but she said enrollment and student success are important values.

She also reiterated a concept UM has been discussing in relation to its student population, a focus on keeping existing students rather than losing them. She said the biggest part of enrollment is retaining students already on campus.

"We want to recruit them every year by serving them well with great classes, great advising, great outcomes and graduation," Stearns said.

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Higher Education Reporter

Reporter for the Missoulian