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UM commencement file

A group of students stand together for a group photo before lining up to march to the Adams Center before commencement in May.

The University of Montana saw a 7.6 percent drop in enrollment from last fall to this fall, according to its latest census enrollment report.

It marks the eighth consecutive year of decline for the university, and the first time enrollment has dropped below 11,000 since 1993 — even as enrollment at the system's other flagship, Montana State University, is projected to increase beyond its enrollment of 16,703 last fall.

UM has seen a 28.5 percent drop in enrollment over the past seven years, and had anticipated a 5 percent drop in enrollment this fall. But the university’s latest census shows a steeper decline, from 11,865 students in Fall 2017 to 10,962 this fall.

That count includes the University’s Missoula and Bitterroot Colleges and its central Mountain Campus. 

Paula Short, director of communications for the University’s Office of the President, attributed part of the most recent drop to how UM counts students in its dual-enrollment program, which allows Montana high school students to take UM classes for college credit. Short said the number of students counted in this program dropped from 280 last fall to 64 now.

She stressed that “any numbers before we do the original census are just estimates,” and that the number could fluctuate moving forward.

Within UM’s Mountain Campus, the number of four-year undergraduates dropped by 8.5 percent.

Rose DeRoche, a junior studying social work, transferred into UM from Salish Kootenai College as a sophomore, then took two years off. Coming back, she said, “all my classes seem smaller than when I first came to this school.”

At the same time, she continued, “I feel like a lot of things have really improved with the teachers and classes. … They’re trying to be more involved with us as students.” DeRoche has also seen improvements to the university’s online Moodle portal.

She speculated that the university’s high-profile sexual assault allegations drove recent years’ decline. 

Even as undergrad enrollment has dropped, law and other graduate student enrollment ticked up by 3.7 percent and 4.6 percent, respectively. But one of those grad students, nursing student Devin Thomas, sees room for improvement.

“We have a great atmosphere when it comes to sports … but then it just comes to adding new things. We need to be more versatile in the things we offer.” He identified a physician's assistant program as one potential gain for the university. 

UM faces the dual challenges of pulling in more students while trimming a $10 million budget shortfall. As reported in the Missoulian Thursday, the university is expected to cut that in half next fiscal year, and the university provost’s office will request more specific budget goals next week.

UM did not immediately respond to a request for comment on how, if at all, these latest numbers will affect budgeting.

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