Enrollment at the University of Montana dropped 4.8 percent this year, even as Montana State University touted a 4.8 percent increase – and record-high count, the institutions announced Friday.
At UM, the head count was tallied at 12,419 students, whereas MSU counted 16,440 students. The institutions include head counts at Missoula College and Gallatin College, respectively, and the figures are preliminary.
The slip this year at UM means the university has seen a 24 percent drop since 2010 in its number of full-time equivalent (FTE) students. UM tallies noses for a head count, and it also assesses its enrollment by credits equivalent to a full-time student.
"The bottom line is we're down," said Tom Crady, the new vice president for enrollment management and student affairs.
This summer, UM hired Crady to fill a vice president position redesigned to focus on recruitment and arrest a six-year enrollment slide. To bring him on board, UM awarded him a $70,000 signing bonus with no strings attached, the highest bonus the Montana University System approved, on top of a $170,000 salary.
At UM, the ongoing enrollment decreases have created financial problems for the campus, and last fall, president Royce Engstrom announced budget cuts later estimated to amount to some $12 million. UM cut spending on graduate assistants 22 percent, and many faculty members are going without telephone lines in their offices.
Engstrom did not make a public appearance at the news conference. In 2013, he told the Montana Board of Regents, "we have an enrollment problem," but declines have continued since, with the full-time student count down 6.7 percent since last fall.
At the news conference Friday, Crady was candid about his concerns over the continued drop at UM but also optimistic about UM’s offerings and new recruitment strategies. The system-wide head count of 12,419 announced Friday at UM compared to a headcount of 15,642 in 2010.
Crady said he did not want to offer projections or make promises he couldn't deliver, but he aims to stabilize enrollment this year – and increase it by 3 percent next fall. The census counts 7,392 undergraduate FTEs, which dropped 8 percent since the 2015 fall census; 1,390 graduate FTEs; and 285 law FTEs.
“I have to tell you, I’m very optimistic about what we can do in the future,” Crady said.
UM had planned on level enrollment from last year, but it noted a couple of bright spots in the grim news, including an increase at the graduate school from 2,030 students to 2,110, and a 1.7 percent uptick in nonresidents, “a fact that will help meet budget projections.”
Head count enrollment at Missoula College is up 2.2 percent, according to UM. However, the census notes a 9.5 percent decline in FTEs.
Already, Crady said he is focused on next year's enrollment and on targeting high school students. For example, UM started a micro-scholarship program called "Raise Me" that has drawn 1,000 signups despite its quiet launch; in an earlier interview, he said he could not predict the number of signups that would translate into enrollment.
However, at the news conference, he explained the philosophy behind the program and UM’s approach.
"The goal is to really engage students at the earliest point," Crady said.
The recruitment vice president also said UM needed to focus on back-room operations for admissions, or the way it processes materials and encourages applicants to become students at UM. Universities draw students from their applicant pools, and he'd like to increase the pool some 6 percent a year.
He also feels confident that UM can market itself to those students.
"I would describe the University of Montana as a gem," Crady said. "The reason for that is the out-of-state reputation is awesome."
Already, he is is doing away with barriers that force students to lose their registration. UM can put a hold on a registration for more than 50 different reasons, Crady said, but he is eliminating all but seven or eight and leaving in place only the ones that have to do with safety, or state or federal regulations.
At the news conference, Crady also highlighted one of UM’s strengths rather than bemoaning its lack of engineering, as UM officials have often done in recent years. Crady said when people tell him students want STEM degrees, he tells them UM has them – science, technology, entrepreneurship and math.
“Entrepreneurship here is incredible. It’s a massive asset for us, so we really need to focus on that,” Crady said.
While UM’s head count is down, it’s not as low as it projected it would be in its budget, and that means it has a cushion in place, said Regent Fran Albrecht.
“That means that we are stabilized here on this campus to ensure that there really should not be any future cuts,” Albrecht said.
She said when Crady applied for the job at UM, he went through the application process as a student at UM and some other schools. UM didn’t get back to him as quickly as some of the others, and he saw areas it could improve, she said.
Albrecht said she, too, has seen UM lapse in the past in ensuring the application process was seamless, and other institutions of higher education are aggressive in staying student-focused. So she’s pleased Crady is putting fixes into place.
“I’m thrilled with the approaches and his candor with what needed to change,” Albrecht said.