The enrollment decline slowed at the University of Montana because the campus was able to retain more of the students from the fall to spring semester, UM officials said.
UM lost 2.9 percent of its enrollment since the fall. Since last spring, it lost 3.1 percent and counts 343 fewer students than one year ago.
But Cathy Cole, vice president for enrollment, said 1.7 percent more students chose to stay with UM semester to semester this school year compared to last school year.
"The loss of students was less. It came at a slower rate, which in enrollment is a very good sign," Cole said Tuesday.
Between fall 2017 and spring 2018, the campus lost 7.4 percent of its students, according to census data from UM. The drop from spring to spring also showed a more acute decline last year, 5.4 percent in 2018 compared to 3.1 percent this spring, according to UM census data.
UM also said tuition revenue is higher this spring than projected. Vice president of finance Paul Lasiter said budgeted tuition revenue was $32.8 million, and actual tuition through Feb. 11 was $34.7 million. That's $1.8 million more, or 5.5 percent.
However, this fall also marked the largest drop in the equivalent of full time students, 9.1 percent, since UM started losing students. The first dip came in the form of a slip in the equivalent of full time student hours in 2011.
Since then, the decrease has hit 32 percent, and the flagship has been working to reverse the persistent loss of students in Missoula.
Montana State University has seen an almost mirror increase. Last week, the Bozeman flagship announced it had hit an enrollment record for the 11th year in a row and counted 15,694 students. The increase from last spring is 200 students.
UM brought on its first enrollment vice president in 2016. Last school year, UM's new president, Seth Bodnar, changed course and brought on a different enrollment vice president, Cole, in a restructure.
Cole noted the increase in revenue and in the number of students staying at UM from fall to spring are important measures for the flagship. She said the latter means more students are finding it easier to stay at UM; they may have more financial aid, an increase in student services, or be happier in their classes.
"It just is overall a great sign for the institution," Cole said.
The drop in enrollment and ensuing budget trouble have put a stranglehold on some programs at UM and led to a financial shortfall and faculty and staff buyouts.
But last summer, UM announced a record number for summer enrollment at 2,932. It grew 17 percent year over year and marked the highest summer count at the flagship since 2014, according to UM.
Cole said she is seeing positive indicators that overall enrollment is on the right track, too, and said it takes time to turn a ship as large as the Missoula campus.
She addressed the 9.1 percent drop in the equivalent of full time student hours as well.
Cole noted UM is focused on persistence, pulling students from fall to spring, and retention because those efforts are holistic and will pay dividends in the long run. She said the major factors in play are "motivation, markers and momentum."
UM aims to provide students with a sense of belonging and give them confidence in the value of the curriculum, she said. The campus also is working with students on markers that predict success, such as experiences out of the classroom. It's working to foster momentum as well, including ensuring the right financial and personal resources are available to students.
"We know that by focusing on retention and persistence, we will ultimately improve our overall enrollment," Cole said.
This spring, students finalized their financial aid much sooner, Cole said. She said that is a sign that enrollment is beginning to stabilize.
"Students are taking an active role in making sure they are staying at the institution," she said.
The vice president is looking ahead to fall 2019, as well.
In fall 2018, UM posted its steepest decline, a 7.6 percent drop in headcount, since the slide began. It's been at least seven years since UM has posted a gain in enrollment in the fall semester. In 2011, it counted a 0.2 percent increase in headcount, but a 1.8 percent decline in the equivalent of a full time student.
So far, though, Cole said nearly 900 students already have accepted their scholarship packages for next fall, a high number for February. She said a specific comparison point from last year was not available because UM has not tracked the data before.
At the same time, she said more students are signing up for new student orientation, and more students are reviewing financial aid packages with UM.
"That's a pretty big sign that you're willing to commit to an institution. If you're willing to come in and you're willing to talk numbers, that's a big deal," Cole said.
She also noted applications are up 1 percent year over year. The percent is small compared to the 123 percent increase in applications Cole shared with the Faculty Senate in October, but she said it adds up given 6,000 to 8,000 overall applications.
"And we're keeping pace with the number of admits (or acceptances), so that is encouraging as well," Cole said.
She said it means students are maintaining their interest in UM by sticking with the process. They're providing the campus items such as test scores and immunizations, for instance.
UM also is targeting recruitment materials to more students who are the "right fit" for UM, she said. She said the campus is being bolder in reaching beyond its typical recruitment area to tap students with a common lifestyle as well.
She earlier announced a fix to a management program that had left prospective students who expressed interest in UM without responses.
The changes don't guarantee an enrollment increase in fall 2019, but Cole said the dial is turning in the right direction.
"We certainly hope so (to see enrollment go up), and I know that's not an answer," Cole said. "This is a really big ship to turn, and it's been broken for a while. I can tell you we are doing everything possible, working night and day to increase enrollment."