The University of Montana is anticipating a roughly 5 percent drop in enrollment this fall, but the campus is moving the dial the right way on a couple of other numbers, including retention, officials said Wednesday.
Students are still registering for classes and enrollment will continue to change, but a preliminary count puts the total to date at 11,231 students, said Cathy Cole, vice president for enrollment and communications. On census day last year, UM counted 11,865 total students, and Cole said the expected slide is within the decrease UM had projected.
However, Cole also said UM has pushed up retention 1 percent to 70.8 percent, meaning fewer students are dropping out after their freshman year. UM noted the number of nontraditional freshman also is slightly up.
"Clearly, we have work to do at the institution, but we are also excited about a few of these numbers," Cole said Wednesday.
Final enrollment will not be available until after the campus conducts its census on the 15th day of instruction, but UM provided preliminary data on Wednesday. The flagship anticipates 1,223 new freshmen compared to 1,292 last fall.
Community members are closely watching enrollment at UM, as are students, parents and business leaders throughout Montana.
The campus has experienced a persistent enrollment slide — 28.5 percent from spring 2011 to 2018, according to data from the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Education — and corresponding budget shortfalls. In recent years, UM also has seen significant leadership changes.
However, a new administration is working to right the budget, and upheaval in the top ranks might be quieting. In January 2018, the campus brought on a non-traditional new president after an interim served for a year. President Seth Bodnar, a business executive, quickly named a new provost and brought on Cole to serve in a newly configured position directing both enrollment and communications.
In the transition, UM went roughly four months without an enrollment vice president on the job, but Cole said Wednesday she believes the university has the right team in place to start turning the tide. She said Bodnar has the right vision for the institution and described Provost Jon Harbor, who came from Purdue University, as a "brilliant man" who knows how to position faculty to meet the needs of students.
In a presentation Harbor made when he interviewed at UM, he suggested enrollment could reach 16,000 students. Higher education officials at times sidestep questions about enrollment targets, but Wednesday, Cole said she believes the figure is realistic down the road.
"We'll get there. In our past, we've been close to that, so I don't think it's out of the question, and we'll get there again," Cole said.
However, she said UM will have conversations to determine its correct size, and recruitment will take time. She also said the work will require an analysis of data to determine the "best fit" students for the campus and a corresponding effort to target them.
In fact, she said the bump in retention this year gives UM good information about the type of students it should recruit and will help her "build out the model."
"The students that we are recruiting are staying with us, so we do know who we need to recruit. Now, we just need to tell the story better," Cole said.
Some parents and business leaders have questioned the mountains of marketing materials Montana State University sends to high school students compared to the skimpier communication efforts from UM. Cole, though, said UM is focusing its efforts on digital outreach to speak directly to students.
"Students that are between the ages of 14, 17 and 18 live on their screens," Cole said. "They live in the digital sphere. So we're really engaging them there. We're using all of the digital technology that we have at our fingertips."
She said she is taking a close look at UM's communications to ensure messages are short, interactive and engaging. At the same time, she said the campus will send targeted print materials for "the kitchen table" when it needs to share a message with the whole family, such as how to pay for college or information about scholarships.
In the next couple of months, she said UM also will launch digital content directed to parents and to guidance counselors, teachers and principals.
"We want to make sure they also know that UM is an excellent place to recommend to a student for higher education," Cole said.
Although UM has endured some administrative disorder in recent years, faculty have continued to produce research that draws international attention and many students excel in their fields. Bodnar recently noted, for example, business students have a pass rate on the CPA exam that's higher than any public university in the West.
In summer 2016, UM brought on its first vice president for enrollment and, last fall, the campus bumped up freshmen numbers by a hair, some 24 students, although overall enrollment fell. Last semester, though, Bodnar did not renew the contract for Tom Crady, the enrollment vice president, and announced a restructure that combined oversight of enrollment and communications.
This year, the flagship anticipates a drop of 69 freshmen, although the count is preliminary. But UM had lost on average 104 freshman a year from 2011 to 2017, so the expected decline this fall is not as pronounced as it could have been.
UM had projected an overall enrollment drop and Cole said this week the total decrease could have been steeper. The preliminary count puts the decline this fall at 634, with final numbers to be released later in the semester.
"Through heroic efforts here on campus, that number is much less than what we thought it was going to be," Cole said. "We still do have a deficit. We know we have work to do, and that's why I'm here."