City Club Missoula

Cathy Cole, vice president for enrollment and strategic communication at the University of Montana, fields questions related to student enrollment during a City Club Missoula meeting at the DoubleTree hotel on Monday. Cole spoke to members of the community about the university's continued effort to increase student enrollment and interaction on campus.

University of Montana vice president Cathy Cole's efforts to stem the downward enrollment trend at the flagship range from fixing software glitches to writing prospective students by hand. 

However, dropping enrollment probably won’t stabilize until 2021, Cole predicted Monday. Cole started her job as vice president for enrollment and strategic communications at UM in July 2018 and has since been working to lift the flagship university’s enrollment, which has declined 33.5% since 2011.

Monday, she described to roughly 80 participants of City Club of Missoula various initiatives to lure more students to UM and retain them through graduation. After her presentation, she shared the stabilization outlook with the Missoulian.

"It takes a long time for enrollment to stabilize,” she said. “It's not like flipping a switch and then everything's going to work right.”

The steps UM has been taking range from faculty baking cookies for on-campus students to a recruiting trip that UM President Seth Bodnar will take to Asia next month and bus tours in Montana, she said. She also said the connection UM is forging with the city is important for students and mentioned in particular the Big Sky Experience, a set of activities that immerse incoming freshmen in the community.

During the question-and answer session, Montana High Tech Business Alliance executive director Christina Henderson brought up a more familiar line of marketing. Henderson said that for years, she’d seen high school students receive several mailings from Montana State University in Bozeman, but only one from UM — a handwritten note from Cole.

Cole said that a software glitch had tripped up UM's ability to confirm communications were in the mail, and that while she still writes a lot of handwritten notes, now “we're sending out publications.”

“MSU has a lot more money than we do. We can't match them one-to-one,” she said. But she said the university is aiming to match them in quality, with the goal of sending at least two physical mailings a month “to the kitchen table” of prospective students.

“Because we've got our messaging much more clear, and we're talking to students, I think they're starting to see what we offer and why a UM education matters,” Cole said after the presentation.

While enrollment looks set to drop in the near term, she predicted UM will see a trend of progressively larger incoming classes. “I do think we're going to move forward with an increase next year. I can't see us slipping back.”

UM’s latest budget request forecasts a 7% enrollment drop for the current fiscal year, bringing the total down to 8,603 full-time equivalent students. Actual data won’t be available until the university census scheduled for Sept. 16, and University spokesperson Paula Short wrote in an email that the student body typically gains or loses 2-2.5% of students between that count and the end of the semester. But whatever the final count, Cole predicted enrollment and revenues will at least beat the forecast.

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