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For the first time since the late 1980s, the University of Montana has fewer students enrolled for fall semester than a year earlier.

This year, student numbers add up to 13,858 n 103 fewer students compared to 2006, when UM posted its all-time record enrollment of 13,961.

Despite the downturn, there's good news.

More students are taking more credit hours this semester than ever before, said UM President George Dennison.

Even though fewer students are enrolled this fall, for the first time in UM's history more than 12,000 students are attending classes full time.

"This is really significant because it means more students are more likely to graduate on time n within four years n and that means more students will reduce the cost of their education because they are graduating on time," Dennison said.

UM administrators and faculty have worked diligently over the past few years to encourage students to take heavier class loads because studies show that students who take more credits are more likely to get a diploma and not drop out of school, and they are more likely to graduate in less time than those who take lighter loads, Dennison said.

To help facilitate those goals, last year UM revamped how it charges for classes. Now, students who take more than 12 credits can take additional courses and get more credit without additional costs.

"I feel good that the program is working and the message is getting to our students," Dennison said. "It makes sense to take more credits when you are paying for 12 credits, because taking more courses doesn't cost anything."

Last fall, the number of students taking more than 12 credits n they're called FTEs, or full-time equivalents n numbered 11,716. This year, there are 12,049 FTEs, an increase of 333 students.

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"This year's record FTE is what we will measure against in the future because of our efforts to assure student success," Dennison said.

Although state economists have been predicting a downturn in the number of high school graduates over the next 15 years, and that could eventually affect the state university system, Dennison said he is unsure why fewer students overall are attending UM.

The numbers may reflect those predictions, he said, but studies also show more high school students n nearly 57 percent of the entire state population n are choosing to attend college.

While economists and statisticians ferret out the story behind the numbers, Dennison said he'll take the opportunity to celebrate the fact that UM has more full-time students enrolled in fall-semester classes than ever before.

"It truly is significant," Dennison said, "and I am very appreciative of all the work faculty did to be certain this happened."

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