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Tom Crady

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

After years of declining student admissions, University of Montana officials said Wednesday they see positive signs in fall numbers despite the overall enrollment drop of 4.5 percent.

According to UM:

• Freshman enrollment grew nearly 2 percent compared to last fall, and the number of freshman from Montana has gone up, too.

• The number of Native Americans is up 4.3 percent.

• First-generation college students are up 3.8 percent.

• The headcount for graduate students grew 10 percent.

Tom Crady, vice president for enrollment and student affairs, said UM had projected an overall drop given the large size of the last graduating class. And he said the upticks this year are especially noteworthy given the unsettling changes UM has faced in the past year.

In December 2016, for one, the Commissioner's Office asked the president to step down. Then in May, the Montana Board of Regents approved tuition increases.

"I'm incredibly impressed and proud of the admissions staff," Crady said, naming in particular Emily Ferguson-Steger, Liz Stotts and Joe Carpenter in a statement. "Given what they faced this year, they did an incredible job."

***

The 2 percent increase represents just 24 more students, or a freshman class of 1,292 compared to 1,268.

Yet the bump is significant given the steep slide and trajectory in recent years when UM was losing 200 incoming students each fall, Crady said.

"So what we saw this year was a modest increase and pretty close to the target that I hoped to actually hit," he said.

Earlier, before the president change and tuition increase, Crady had said a 3 percent increase in freshman enrollment would be a realistic goal.

Wednesday, he again noted the aim was to stabilize the incoming class and be more consistent from one semester to the next. He also said he anticipated being able to project the size of next year's freshman class in a couple of weeks with help from a consulting firm.

"We can only change the enrollment one class at a time," Crady said.

The vice president attributed some of the success this year to a micro scholarship program UM has started offering called Raise.me. Students as young as high school freshmen can sign up to earn money for good grades and extracurricular activities that they can then put toward attending UM.

"We want to make sure that Montana students who might not have an opportunity to go to college do. That's why we think the Raise.me scholarship made a difference," said Crady, who noted he was a first-generation college student himself.

In its census, UM also noted that the mountain campus saw an enrollment drop of 5.5 percent among undergraduates; the law school dropped nearly 7 percent; and the full-time equivalent count overall fell to 9,799.

***

Missoula College saw an overall drop of 15.2 percent compared to last fall with 317 fewer students, but first-time freshman are up 7.8 percent.

"It's feeling like a new day," said Dean Shannon O'Brien. "It's a turnaround. And it gives certainly the faculty and staff here hope that the pendulum is swinging."

This fall, Missoula College opened doors on a new building on the Clark Fork River, and O'Brien said the new space may be drawing students. She said the building makes it clear to students that the community wants to invest in them.

"I think that they feel a part of something new and something important, and I can't help but wonder if that was part of the draw of this building," O'Brien said. "It's a dignified space."

At the college, though, dual enrollment took a hit of 52 percent compared to last year. Dual enrollment is the number of high school students taking college credits, and that figure fell from 583 last year to 280 this fall.

O'Brien said college officials are still trying to determine the reason for the drop. However, she said Missoula County Public Schools offers a "fabulous" international baccalaureate program for high school students, and some of them may be opting to take courses in that program instead of through the college.

"Frankly, we have a long way to go. Other states are leading in this concept of dual enrollment," O'Brien said.

***

At UM, the overall headcount of 11,865 students exceeds the projected 11,465 upon which the university prepared its 2018 fiscal year budget.

But the Montana University System is anticipating more budget cuts because of the state's financial challenges: "All units, including UM, will see state general fund reductions," UM said in a news release. UM's share could be as much as $6 million each year for two years.

Although the budget will continue to be tight, Crady said it's important to keep tuition low. At a certain point, higher tuition turns into less revenue because the cost turns students away.

Montana families shouldn't have to shoulder the burden of extra tuition, Crady said: "So if we can boost our revenue to help Montana families, that's what we need to do."

Going forward, he said UM wants to push retention and full course loads in order to help keep students and graduate them quickly.

***

When he was hired last summer, Crady received a record recruitment bonus of $70,000, and UM was looking to him to help turn around an enrollment drop that had plagued the campus since 2010. Until then, the highest bonus from the Montana University System had been $5,000, but the Commissioner's Office also noted his salary was $56,000 below average.

Crady has been on the job for nearly 14 months. He said Wednesday he hadn't thought about whether he'd earned the bonus, but he was committed to the cause.

"I've never worked so hard in my life," Crady said. "I didn't even think about that (bonus). For me, actually, it's more about getting students into college. That's why I came."

The full UM census report is online at http://bit.ly/2wWj0E2.

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University of Montana, higher education