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University of Montana enrollment decline 'severe,' but Montanans see signs of hope

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University of Montana

The University of Montana campus.

The ongoing enrollment drops at the University of Montana have earned a stark distinction for the campus: The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that from 2011 to 2017, UM lost more undergraduates than any other flagship state university in the United States.

As of this fall, UM lost more than 40% of its undergraduates in eight years; the Chronicle characterized its declines as “severe.”

“From the fall of 2011 to the fall of 2017, the university shed nearly a third of its undergraduates, according to disclosures made to the Education Department," said the Chronicle story. "That 30-plus-percent decline dwarfed those seen at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks and the University of Idaho, which had the second- and third- largest enrollment dips, respectively, but posted much smaller losses during the same period.”

Alaska saw an 18% drop, 1,044 students, while Idaho's 17% drop represented 1,536 students, numbers dwarfed by the loss of 3,920 students at UM in that time period, according to the Chronicle.

Graduate student enrollment at UM continues to be a bright spot for the liberal arts campus and retention has moved in the right direction. But the ranking reported by the Chronicle comes despite significant moves by higher education officials to reverse the trend.

In 2016, UM instated its first enrollment vice president — and then removed him and recruited another one in a restructuring — among other top leadership changes in the last few years.

Nearly three years ago amid considerable turmoil on campus, Commissioner of Higher Education Clay Christian requested the UM president step down from his post and then recommended a non-traditional candidate for the job — Seth Bodnar, a relatively young businessman and Army veteran with little background in academia. 

Although the slide has continued, faculty members remained upbeat about the campus last week, legislators have not sounded alarms, and Christian expressed optimism UM had reached a level of stability.

“We think it’s a position we can grow from,” Christian said.

Since Bodnar took office in early 2018, his administration has taken several steps — from lengthening freshman orientation to restructuring student services to hiring a vice president for enrollment and communications — in an effort to improve retention and recruitment.

Last summer, Bodnar predicted that “the work we’re doing today — marketing, outreach and reorganization to align enrollment — will impact fall 2019 and have an even greater impact in '20 and '21.” Last week, Christian said he believes UM is making progress and will continue to.

“We’ve put leadership in place that we can move the needle, and we’ll empower that group to do what they need to do to improve the numbers,” Christian told the Missoulian. “I think we’re starting to see some of the benefits of those changes.” He pointed to two specific metrics: retention, which increased from 68.4% last year to 71.4% this year, and freshman enrollment.

If freshman class sizes keep growing, enrollment eventually will as well. One UM data set, which just counted students who had paid tuition by the 15th day of instruction, showed a 2.7% increase in the number of incoming freshmen, from 1,037 to 1,065. But another data set, which counted all students, showed a drop, from 1,172 to 1,141.

Christian, speaking with the Missoulian, drew on the former count. “Incoming freshman class size, we see it’s stabilized or improved, and that’s kind of President Bodnar’s message. … He’s reached a spot of stabilizing the university.”

He declined to specify any enrollment targets he would like to see UM hit in the near future. “There’s not a number where you measure success. It’s where you have a structurally balanced budget where you meet the needs of the students that you serve.”

Two Faculty Senate members, Chris Palmer and Justin Angle, were both upbeat last week about the university’s direction. 

“While maybe we didn’t get the new freshman number that we were hoping for, maybe we were hoping (for it) to be bigger … I don’t feel the impending budget cuts that we’ve felt in other years when we had lower enrollment that we’ve hoped for,” said Angle, an associate professor of marketing at the UM College of Business.

Palmer, a chemistry and biochemistry professor and the Faculty Senate's chair-elect, said he agreed with Christian's optimistic take on the latest numbers.

Enrollment at the state’s other flagship, Montana State University-Bozeman, climbed steadily for several years prior to 2019. But enrollment at the state’s other public colleges has been mostly flat in recent years, and the system-wide head count has hovered between 42,000 and 45,000 since 2012.

While UM had the sharpest drop, enrollment decline and stagnation are common problems these days, said Tom Harnisch, director of state relations and policy analysis for the Washington, D.C.-based American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

“The University of Montana is far from alone in struggling with enrollment challenges,” he said. “For many universities, particularly regional public universities in the Midwest and Northeast and those in rural regions, enrollment is a top-tier concern among campus administrators.” With a falling birth rate, “the pool of traditional-age students is shrinking.”

It remains to be seen how, if at all, this trend will affect public support for the university system. State appropriations for higher education in Montana sit at $201 million for fiscal year 2020 — the highest since 1992. But the state’s share of total education funding has dropped from 76% in 1992 to 38% now.

"I think the total enrollment in the system is obviously a concern for legislators," said Montana Sen. Dick Barrett, D-Missoula, a retired UM economist.

Rep. Tom Burnett, R-Bozeman, has long taken issue with how much taxpayers spent to support the university system, and says they need to drop to reflect the number of students. “It seems like taxpayer costs should track enrollment,” he said. But one of his colleagues, Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, who chaired the legislature’s Education Committee last session, was more circumspect.

“Will the total number of students attending our university system factor into discussions of funding? Yes,” he said. “Is it a simple matter? No, it is not.

“Population will matter, but that doesn’t mean just because UM is going through some tough times we should take (educational) opportunity and step on it. That’s just wrong.” UM, he believes, should work to ensure that its course and degree offerings are relevant to the state’s economy.

He called the latest enrollment numbers “dismaying,” but doesn’t see them as reason to lose hope.

“I’m hoping the University of Montana under its new president has gotten it right. I believe they’ve moved in (that) direction.”

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Raises of $6,400 for the Montana University System's three top paid officials are on the agenda this week for the Montana Board of Regents, as is a $500,000 deferred compensation plan for University of Montana President Seth Bodnar.

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