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College enrollment a national challenge; University of Montana will see summer boost

University of Montana

Main Hall at the University of Montana

The University of Montana's struggle with enrollment decline is acute, but the campus isn't alone in facing drops.

On the other hand, the growth at Montana State University-Bozeman is bucking a national downward trend in undergraduates going to college.

Last week, the Montana Board of Regents heard an update on enrollment across the Montana University System, and overall numbers have slipped since 2011 from 40,961 to a projected 36,364 for the 2019 fiscal year.

The healthy upward trajectory in Bozeman is an exception.

At MSU, enrollment has grown 29% since 2011, according to data from the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education.

MSU also is the only four-year campus to have increased its resident population in the last decade, according to the Commissioner's Office. And its increase in out-of-state students is helping mask stagnation or declines at other campuses.

John Thunstrom, information technology director for the Montana University System, told the regents the resident population reached a peak in the 2011 fiscal year but has been declining the last eight years. He attributed the drop to the recession, subsequent recovery, and decline in high school graduates.

"There are several strategies that have been implemented or are in the process of being implemented across the state to increase that in-state enrollment," Thunstrom said.

He said schools are working on retention and increasing their "capture rates" of high school graduates by collaborating with the Montana Office of Public Instruction. He said he anticipates the numbers of high school graduates will level up, although not at a steep pitch.

"There's going to be a very slow recovery, but we've kind of reached the trough," Thunstrom said.

A September 2018 story in The Hechinger Report described the national outlook for colleges and universities as "grim" and noted some institutions may face closures. The Hechinger Report describes itself as covering innovation and inequality in education with deep reporting.

Hechinger noted regional four-year campuses serving local students were projected to lose more than 11% of enrollment from 2012 to 2029, but it also noted student demand could increase in mountain states such as Montana.

UM has struggled with enrollment, losing 34% of its full time equivalent students since 2011, according to data from the Commissioner's Office. However, graduate enrollment has grown, and last summer, UM counted a 17% increase in enrollment compared to the previous summer, the highest number since 2014. UM anticipates an uptick this summer as well.

Cathy Cole, vice president for enrollment and strategic communications, had estimated she could easily boost freshman enrollment in the fall 6% to 7% with some simple fixes prior to starting the job last summer. However, last week, she said trouble last fall with the software system that manages communication for UM was a serious setback requiring re-installation and months of work, and she projected flat freshman enrollment in fall 2019.

A presentation she made in April to the UM budget committee noted the enrollment yield, or the number of admitted students who actually attend UM, had dropped 17% compared to five years ago.

The report also highlighted the following:

  • Over the past five years, the numbers of applicants, admitted students, and "matriculants," or those who end up attending UM, have dropped, with the last decreasing 25%,
  • First-time freshman enrollment has declined at a rate of 2.3% since 2014,
  • Transfer student enrollment has increased from 53.7% in 2014 to 56.5% in 2018,
  • The total number of applicants at the mountain campus had fallen 7% compared to last year, but the number of nontraditional freshman who applied was up 14% and number admitted was up 33%,
  • The total number of applicants at Missoula College was up 10%, and total admitted was up 13% compared to last year,
  • In the past five years, most of the students enrolled at UM came from Montana, and
  • The percentage of students from Montana has stayed "fairly consistent," but out-of-state recruitment has dropped 1.84%.

The report also noted Cole had identified the counties in Montana with "best fit" students as well as counties in Oregon and Washington that hold the most opportunities for UM. In an interview, Cole also said UM has an international recruiter in Asia, which has the most potential for growth abroad, and the president and provost both will visit China and Japan in the fall.

"Asia is always a great place to recruit. Students there want to have an American education," Cole said.

She and other UM officials have been overhauling the way they do outreach and orientation for students. Communications director Paula Short also said UM is working on improving its ability to make projections throughout the year.

Housing applications compared to previous years have been one indicator UM tracks. As of last week, all told 131 fewer students had registered for housing this year to date compared to last year, with 1,309 housing applications submitted in all as of last week.

However, UM has been working to increase its incoming class, and the number of new students this year had increased by 43, to 904, compared to the same time last year.

“I am very pleased and excited to see that we are up in new freshmen applications,” said Sandy Curtis, director of UM Housing, in an email.

Cole also noted a recruitment strategy that worked for her at another institution. If a student indicates interest in a particular major, UM has multiple people reach out, a dean, chair, faculty, alum, employer, and current student, and Cole said she and her team are creating marketing plans for every major at the undergraduate level.

The community has been anxious to see growth at UM because the strength of the campus affects Missoula's economy. Cole has said it takes time to turn such a large ship, and President Seth Bodnar has said the campus is making steady progress.

An expert cited in The Hechinger Report story from September described future high school students who are headed to college as "a hot commodity," and the story noted projected declines in student numbers will stress budgets across the country.

"Regional colleges will be under pressure to cut liberal arts courses and expand professional programs, such as law enforcement, that students feel will translate into a good-paying job," the story said. It also noted more colleges will launch "student success" initiatives.

UM already has made cuts to the liberal arts and it is focusing on community partnerships to build career opportunities. The Missoula flagship's top priority for action is to "place student success at the center of all we do."

Also, the regents last week heard about a new project to drive student achievement across the university system, with a pilot to start at three campuses, UM, Helena College and MSU-Billings.

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