The University of Montana spends a bit more money to recruit than other institutions of a similar size, $659 per student compared to $623, according to a UM vice president.
Despite that, the number of students at the flagship has been falling since 2011. But Cathy Cole, UM's new vice president for enrollment management and strategic communications, soon will have a report in hand that will help her know where to invest those dollars for the highest return — and where to avoid spending.
"What we're doing right now is we're digging deep into our data for the past five years, and we're looking at the type of student who has come to the institution and has been successful at the institution," Cole said.
She will receive the report next month, in time to be able to use the data to position recruiters, craft messages and influence enrollment in fall 2019.
Enrollment has been a thorn in UM's side. The more than 30 percent decline in full-time students over the last eight years has caused a strain on the general fund, led to faculty and staff departures and strapped many programs. Two programs will close — Global Humanities and Religions and Material Sciences.
But Cole plans to reverse the tide. Last week, she discussed reasons for this fall's steep decline, the actions she is already taking to reach more of the right students, the actions her team will take in the future and her own motivation to help the flagship grow.
"I haven't not worked a day since I've gotten here, because it matters," Cole said. "It matters so much that we get this right. And so we're going to get it right."
Even though UM has been trying to turn around enrollment for years, the numbers fell again this fall, on the heels of a presidential turnover last school year and several months when the flagship went without leadership from an enrollment vice president.
Cole shared some of the reasons those numbers don't look good this fall, including one way enrollment was "artificially inflated" last fall. Last year, UM did not drop people for nonpayment by census, as it had in the past, she said.
"It's actually a really big piece (of the decrease this year)," Cole said. "So we had this class where the students didn't have the ability to pay. And then on the very last class day, they were dropped. So we had this artificially inflated number."
Also, she said a significant portion of the decline, 216 out of 903 total fewer students, is due to a change in the way UM reports "dual enrollment," or high school students also enrolled in college courses. In the past, UM counted those students in its fall census, but this year, the institution decided to include them in its spring census, according to the UM Data Office.
As such, nearly a quarter of the overall decline can be attributed to that change, Cole said.
The incoming class this year is down 120 students, with freshman enrollment falling 9.3 percent after a slight 1.9 percent uptick last fall. UM saw another 9.3 percent drop in fall 2016, although the actual number of lost students was higher then.
The decline this year took place despite UM spending $2 million more on tuition waivers than it had the previous fiscal year.
Finance Vice President Rosi Keller said some of the increase to $15.5 million from $13.5 million can be attributed to higher tuition, and some of it is because UM is properly budgeting for a new waiver.
When UM President Seth Bodnar came on board in January, Cole said the university had about 1,000 fewer applications than it had one year earlier. Staff made a concerted effort to turn more of those applicants into actual students, and she said they improved the ratio, with a yield some 8 percent higher than last year.
Cole anticipates a small bump in the 2019 incoming class.
"I can tell you it's going to be bigger than this year's freshman class. By how much, I don't know," Cole said.
This year, Cole said she doesn't have all of the data, but she has some of it, and she's already making adjustments to target the right students.
"We have changed some of our recruitment patterns, and we're going out to different areas," Cole said.
She has recruiters in Florida and Louisiana, for instance, because students from those areas do well in Montana. With a couple more years of data, she'll have information that tells her why, but in the meantime, she can make an educated guess because she herself came from Florida.
Florida schools are competitive and costly, for one, and the climate is hot, so some students might want a change of scenery, she said. The University of Florida has a top-rated medical school, but it recommends aspiring doctors seek undergraduate degrees elsewhere. Enter UM, Cole said, whose pre-medical students are accepted into medical school at a 30 percent higher rate than students from other institutions.
"Who wouldn't want to come to Montana to do your pre-med work?" Cole said.
She has four UM recruiters working in the United States and one international recruiter. Industry standards recommend eight total for a campus the size of UM, Cole said.
The university is reaching out to students in New York, New Jersey and other Northeast states, as well.
In some cases, Cole said in-state tuition is two or even three times higher than Montana's out-of-state tuition, so it's cheaper for families to send their students to learn in Big Sky country.
"We really do offer great value for the education that students receive here," Cole said.
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Although overall enrollment has dropped at UM, the campus has seen an upward trend in graduate student numbers, nearly 15 percent compared to a decade ago. This year, the university saw a 4.6 percent increase in the number of graduate students, albeit a tiny drop of 0.2 percent in student full time equivalents.
Both Cole and Graduate Dean Scott Whittenburg said recruitment for those students is different than undergraduate recruitment. Cole said at the graduate level, students are interested in outcomes, such as professional advancement in a specific area; and Whittenburg said recruitment is more closely linked to specific programs for graduate students.
Whittenburg anticipates the growth in graduate students will start to level off. Graduate enrollment is tied to research, and the increase in research dollars has meant more money going to pay graduate students to work in labs.
But capacity is tied to the number of faculty UM has, and that number is relatively flat. So the numbers of teaching assistants is relatively flat as well, although Whittenburg said it could grow if UM adds programs that have "a fair amount of external research" potential.
"I would hope that as we reinvest the dollars over the next few years, one thing that we look at is areas in which the research can grow," Whittenburg said.
UM is in the midst of a restructure to save some $10 million, but campus officials hope the changes will lead to an increase in students and tuition dollars along with room to invest in growing programs.
As for growth, Cole said she can be nimble in response to the information she's commissioned and anticipates shifting strategies based on the report. She expects it will be complete before Thanksgiving, in time to influence the incoming 2019 class.
"We're going to get this done," Cole said. "It's going to take hard work.'
"But if we use data to inform our best-fit student, if we look at data to figure out where we need to find those students, and if we use data to inform our marketing strategies — and we keep checking our data as we're deploying those marketing strategies — we will be successful."
The $20,000 analysis by an Iowa firm Cole has used before will indicate where UM's recruitment investment has made returns and where it hasn't. The report also will help her shape marketing strategies.
"I will literally be able to turn our recruitment on a dime based on the information they give us," Cole said. "We'll be able to move our recruiters around to where they'll be able to be more effective."
Also, Cole said campuses talk to people in the Midwest very differently than they do to people on the East Coast or West Coast. So the results of the report will help Cole know how to craft marketing messages from UM and how to focus social media outreach.
"If that data tells me that we need to pull more from the Midwest, I'm going to change my buys for social media, and I can do that immediately," Cole said.
Next year, she will focus on international recruitment, where she believes in using a heavily digital strategy. Cole said digital marketing allows UM to be both timely and cost effective.
"If it isn't going right for me, I know immediately, and I can make a change. And I've only invested $25 or $50, and that's a reasonable investment. And then I can change it and invest more," Cole said.
In January, UM brought on Bodnar, a nontraditional hire to lead an academic institution.
Bodnar didn't renew the contract of the first vice president for enrollment, leaving UM without an executive leader in enrollment last spring. He subsequently recruited Cole as vice president in a restructured executive post that combined enrollment and communications oversight.
Now, some members of the campus community point to Cole as the person shouldering responsibility for the future of the institution. The results of her work behind the scenes are tied to the success of the new president, a young military veteran from General Electric, along with those who tapped the unconventional candidate to right the ship in Missoula.
"That keeps me up at night," Cole said.
But she's confident in her work product. She's at her desk at 6 a.m. to get the job done. And she's motivated — by the wellspring of offers to help from people on campus and beyond, by the way the right student blossoms at UM, and possibly by a touch of fear about the consequences.
Cole said if she doesn't get the job done, she'll lose her job, as she should. But she's motivated by the domino effect in the community, the idea that "the guy who takes out my trash at night loses his job," as does the FoodZoo worker and the lawn mower.
"That's not cool. 'Cause they're just doing their jobs. So I have to get it right. I have to get it right because none of those people deserve to lose their jobs," Cole said.
Although the work means digging into data and looking at charts and graphs, she said always top of mind for her is the outcome for the student.
"Sometimes, we all think of this as a business, and I talk about the numbers and data all the time. But at the end of the day, it's the students. And it's their families. It's helping the students find their right fit," Cole said.
UM isn't always the right fit, but she always hopes it is.
"When you know it's right and it just clicks and you see them on campus and they're just having the time of their life because their whole world has opened up? It's not a business. It's just not. It's about changing lives."