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University of Montana

The University of Montana campus.

University of Montana enrollment dropped again this past year, from 5.2% to 8.5%, depending on the way UM counts students. But by one measure, freshman numbers edged up.

The UM data office released two enrollment data sets Tuesday. One captures just those students who had paid tuition as of Census Day, the 15th day of instruction. It shows a 5.2% drop in undergraduate enrollment, from 6,302 in fall 2018 to 5,973 now, a 4% drop in the total number of full-time equivalent students from 8,387 to 8,056, and a 2.7% increase in the number of incoming freshmen, from 1,037 to 1,065.

These numbers fit UM officials’ prediction that enrollment would decline again this year, but freshman class size would increase — a trend that, if it continues, will eventually lift enrollment. A university press release called it “a stabilization of the incoming class this fall semester.”

But UM also released a second, less rosy data set Tuesday.

It encompasses all students on campus — both those who have already paid their fall semester tuition and those who haven’t. This “paid and pending” measurement is the one UM has used in past years, and it shows an 8.5% decline in undergraduates, from 6,909 last fall to 6,321 now, and a drop in the number of full-time equivalent students from 9,057 to 8,419. The number of first-time entering freshmen dropped too by this count, from 1,172 to 1,141.

However, both data sets show some unambiguously good news for the flagship. UM had budgeted for 8,603 full-time equivalent students in the current 2020 fiscal year, and Vice President for Operations and Finance Paul Lasiter called the latest enrollment numbers "consistent" with these plans.

The number of Native American students increased from 386 to 423 (paid) or 469 to 490 (paid and pending) for the Mountain Campus. UM’s press release also noted retention had increased from 68.4% last year to 71.4% this year.

In an emailed statement, UM President Seth Bodnar highlighted this gain.

“We have increased the number of incoming students who are paid and finalized by the census date, and our 3% increase in retention reflects a campus committed to ensuring students persist," Bodnar said in the statement. "Our enrollment aligns with our budget, and our current efforts will allow us to grow in the coming years.”

UM enrollment — counted by the old method — dropped 33.5% from 2011 to 2018. Bodnar hired Cathy Cole as vice president of enrollment and communications in 2018. At the time, he predicted that "the work we're doing today — marketing, outreach and our reorganization to align enrollment — will impact fall 2019 and have an even greater impact in '20 and '21.”

In 2006, UM posted a record enrollment of 13,961. In fall 2011, UM counted its highest enrollment ever at 15,669.

On Tuesday, Cole told the Missoulian that "I really believe there's some great stories in the data." She did, however, predict the actual number of students will fluctuate by the end of the semester.

UM presented both counting methods side-by-side for this semester. But starting this spring, it plans to only count students who have paid. Although this method captures fewer students than the old one, Cole said it was a superior approach. “The number of students who are pending changes and the criteria for pending changes from year to year,” she said.

Statewide, the Montana Commissioner of Higher Education’s Office uses the paid-and-pending method to generate each campus’s preliminary fall enrollment. It calculates final semester enrollment based on paid students only. Spokesperson Karen Ogden said the Commissioner's Office plans to continue using both approaches moving forward.

Meanwhile, enrollment has climbed steadily at the other flagship. Montana State University in Bozeman posted a record 16,902 students last fall, dropping slightly to 16,766 students this year.

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