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The University of Montana saw enrollment drop among some of its most vulnerable students this spring.

UM lost 76 Native American students since last spring, a 15.2 percent drop on the main campus.

The drop hit 35 percent since fall 2013 with Native students on the main campus and Missoula College. The total fell from 802 to 522 this spring.

The campus also lost 267 of the neediest students from last spring, a decline of 11.7 percent for those who receive PELL grants.

UM also posted its steepest drop in undergraduate full time equivalents since its crushing slide began in 2011, a loss of 831, or 13 percent since last spring.

The census data UM released last week holds rare bright notes.

The community is anxious for good enrollment news out of the flagship that anchors it, and UM officials point to one slight uptick as a predictor of better news, possibly in the fall. That's a 1.7 percent bump in the number of students who stuck with UM this spring compared to last.

"It's a key for me because I know, having been at other institutions, that's one of the first indicators you're going in the right direction," said UM vice president of enrollment Cathy Cole.

UM is muscling to reverse the enrollment decline as higher education itself shifts, with more competition for high school students across the nation, concerning levels of student debt, and questions about the value of a college degree. (Recent studies show it remains valuable.)

Some shifts, possibly minor, are in the offing at UM too. The student body UM will bring on board in the future may be slightly different given the concerted effort to expand online education. And in at least one area, UM will focus on the direct needs of the Missoula marketplace as it grows faculty.

Last May, UM graduated a large senior class, so the campus loses one reason it has had for a fall drop in enrollment come autumn 2019. Cole has her eye on that persistence rate and is hoping it's the start of other positive numbers.

"It took us a long time to get here," Cole said. "It will take us a long time to get out of it. But the whole institution is focused on it."

***

Here are some bright spots.

The number of graduate students continues to climb, jumping 6.5 percent by 150 students from last spring to this one. It's a 21 percent increase from five years ago to 2,448.

Scott Whittenburg, dean of the Graduate School, has said he anticipates a leveling off of the increase sooner or later. But Whittenburg notes capacity in grad programs isn't linked as much to marketing as it is to other factors.

"Graduate enrollment is controlled both by the number of TA (teaching assistant) lines the university provides and the number of faculty who are available to oversee graduate students," Whittenburg said.

Some programs already are full because of accreditation, such as communicative sciences and disorders, he said. Some programs such as nationally recognized wildlife biology already have a large number of applicants, and Whittenburg said in those cases, more recruitment pushes up not the number of students, but the quality of students.

International enrollment at UM has fluctuated in recent years, but at least since last spring, this number also is positive. It's down to 699 from the fall count of 717, but that's more than the 575 last spring, and also on the higher end of where it's been since it hit 858 in fall 2014.

"We have an international recruiter for the first time in a while," Cole said.

She said the presence of the recruiter on the admissions staff is important, but so is the coordination with other offices on campus that do international work, such as the Mansfield Center, and "aligning with the academic mission."

"It's really made a big difference," Cole said.

Missoula College saw steep percentage drops in every category except dual enrollment, or high school students taking college courses. The 219.7 percent increase in dual enrollment from 188 to 601 helped the college reverse what would have been a precipitous decline to a 12.7 percent increase.

All told, Missoula College went from a headcount of 1,580 to 1,781 spring to spring.

***

The declines are prevalent, and some also raise questions about whether the flagship has adequate support for minority students.

UM lost from last spring veterans, students with disabilities, first-generation students, Native American students, and PELL students. Cole said one reason PELL is down this spring is because students were able to use that money for the first time last summer, and that cuts down on the amount they have for fall and spring.

However, she also said UM has worked with Ruffalo Noel Levitz, a consulting company, to better leverage its aid and scholarship money. The idea is to offer assistance strategically, she said, not too much, not too little.

"We have awarded more aid to more students this year coming up," Cole said.

This school year, UM is down at least a couple of staff members who supported Native American students. The main campus saw a 15.2 percent drop since last spring and Missoula College saw a 5.8 percent drop over the same period with Native enrollment at 425 on the main campus and 97 at the college.

"I think the drop is really significant," said Native American Studies Professor David Beck.

And he said many factors are at play. For starters, both recruitment and retention are issues for UM when it comes to Native American students, he said. And he said UM's computer problem that left applicants without responses from the flagship might compound for Native recruitment.

In Native communities, Beck said when one person goes to college, that person's siblings and cousins will often follow them, and a campus will end up with multiple generations or siblings from the same family.

In one case, he said an advanced science teacher at a high school in a tribal community had all her students apply to UM.

"Somebody from our faculty visited them there last spring, and they said not a single student had heard back from the university," Beck said. "They were all going to college, and none of them were going here."

He said that's a whole classroom of students who aren't going to UM, and it's also potentially family members, which could turn into a long-term trend, as could the upswing at Montana State University.

"I think family members have followed other family members to places like MSU," Beck said. "You'll get a steeper drop in some ways in Native student recruitment when you lose one student than you will with non-Native students."

He said retention also is problematic. Best practices for retaining Native students exist, and some campuses have worked hard to develop those, he said. Outside the Skaggs School of Pharmacy, he said UM has not done so.

"So oftentimes, our retention efforts are based on what we think might work rather than what has been proven through practice and then reported in scholarship as being effective," Beck said.

***

At a recent budget meeting at UM, a newer executive asked if UM surveyed students to find out the reasons they left the flagship. In recent years, the question has been asked before at public meetings, and an employee has noted it's a good idea that hasn't been started.

Cole said launching that survey is "my second No. 1 priority," behind fixing breaks. She said she also wants to know the reasons students who go through the entire application process don't end up enrolling.

Generally, she said UM needs students who will stick with the campus, and that 1.7 percent uptick in persistence is the first step. It's a slowing down of the rate of students leaving UM, she said, and UM tracks actual students in its formula.

"We know which students came back, and we know which students paid, and we know which students are in classes," Cole said.

She said online enrollment and dual enrollment hold opportunities, too. Dual enrollment gives UM a chance to expose "the best and the brightest" to the research institution's top faculty members, Cole said.

"We want them to see this institution as their home and see it as a natural progression for a bachelor's degree," Cole said.

The push to grow online education at UM makes higher education convenient for a wider audience, she said, an undergraduate taking an overseas internship but needing a course to graduate; a stay-at-home parent who can study after children are in bed; or adults with day jobs.

***

UM has cut faculty as its enrollment has fallen and budgets have shrunk. But it has restored some funding to a nationally recognized program, and at least one spark is on the horizon for augmenting another.

Whittenburg said in some cases, UM can see enrollment growth if it adds faculty. He said UM is developing a series of custom computer science and business degrees and programs. The credentials are cumulative so a certificate can count toward a higher degree, he said, and the idea supports the need in Montana for "technical people within all levels."

"I know we'll end up hiring some faculty in computer science because there's demand in the Missoula marketplace," Whittenburg said.

Last spring, director of creative writing Judy Blunt said the graduate program was on the ropes, and she wondered how it could continue given low stipends, aging faculty, and low number of instructors. UM has had a nationally recognized creative writing program.

One year ago, she wondered if the program might need to stop recruiting graduate students sooner or later. 

Last week, Blunt said the creative writing program still may need to shrink its offerings, and it still has a small and aging faculty. But she is getting ready to show top dogs at UM the university's slim faculty numbers compared to programs at peer institutions and argue for an increase.

Her presentation is no guarantee, but the program at UM is in better shape now than it was one year ago. Creative writing has seen two TAs restored, so it counts 12 instead of 10. That's two more students at UM.

It also is increasing a stipend for graduate students from $9,000 to $13,500 or $14,500. "This isn't competitive, but it's not embarrassing." And of course, it's also more attractive to prospective students.

"We are scrambling to make as much lemonade as is possible out of the bits and pieces, and spitting pits on the way," Blunt said.

She said the program bounced a couple of times, and perhaps it already hit bottom.

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