Numbers game 

UM enrollment decline worse than reported

Asked to summarize the ongoing enrollment drop at the University of Montana, Provost Perry Brown takes the next 14 minutes to explain. He begins precisely where President Royce Engstrom did during his annual address in August, by suggesting the small classes of the past four years are a kind of correction to the record number of students who attended UM during the economic recession.

"Actually, we just dropped back to the pre-recession period. We're almost back to normal now," Brown says. "That was a blip, an anomaly."

In fact, the situation is worse. After another large drop this fall, UM's main campus hasn't been so empty since 1995. In five years, the UM student body has plummeted from an all-time high (11,638 students in 2010) to a 20-year low (9,681 now), according to full-time equivalent data provided by the Office of University Planning, Budgeting and Analysis. Even after figuring in two-year students from Missoula College, a sector that has grown, the university is as small as it was in fall 1999. And while some reports refer to the recent annual drops as a "dip" or "decline," enrollment data posted to the university's website suggests something closer to free fall.

There are plenty of ways to slice the numbers, most of which suggest a worsening crisis. UM's annual online census report indicates total headcount enrollment is down 908 students from a year ago, or 6.5 percent, lower still than the preliminary figures announced earlier this month. Resident, out-of-state and international student categories all dropped. Out-of-state freshmen, who typically pay higher tuition, are down 27 percent from last year.

The downward trend has left university officials scrambling to address the problem even as they continue to scratch their heads over its causes. In the meantime, departments face continued budget cuts.

Brown lists several forces working against the university, from low unemployment to tapering Montana high school graduation classes to "a period where we did have a lot of national publicity that wasn't all positive," referring to scrutiny over UM's handling of sexual assault reports. He also points to the popularity of engineering programs and economic troubles in Brazil and China, countries that compose a large chunk of UM's international student population (down 17 percent), in an effort to illustrate the complex factors at play.

But some aspects of the enrollment situation continue to confound officials, Brown says. This fall's headcount, particularly for freshmen, came in lower than UM planners predicted. Brown says an unusual number of students attended summer orientation and signed up for classes, then never showed up. As a result, this year's freshman class is the smallest of the decline period, at 1,739 students between both campuses.

click to enlarge University of Montana administrators are scrambling to stave off plummeting enrollment numbers that have reached a 20-year low. - PHOTO BY DEREK BROUWER
  • photo by Derek Brouwer
  • University of Montana administrators are scrambling to stave off plummeting enrollment numbers that have reached a 20-year low.

On the other hand, Montana State University in Bozeman enrolled over 3,000 freshmen this year, half from out of state, as the university set another overall enrollment record. While its engineering program accounted for the bulk of the increase, other programs are also growing, MSU data shows.

The diverging trajectories between UM and MSU create a situation where, for the first time in recent memory, one of Montana's flagship universities is substantially larger than the other—by nearly 40 percent among full-time equivalents on four-year campuses, according to data provided by the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education.

The office doesn't necessarily see this trend as a problem, Deputy Commissioner Kevin McRae says, though he acknowledges decreasing enrollment creates challenges on individual campuses. OCHE manages the state's universities as a system, and as long as a high school graduate attends one of them, "we view that as a win," McRae says. Enrollment is declining on a majority of Montana campuses, something McRae attributes to the shrinking high school population. But he hasn't seen any evidence that would-be UM students are flocking to Bozeman and says OCHE believes Engstrom and his administration have a "sound" plan in place.

"You really have to take the long-haul approach. If four years of enrollment decline were followed by another four years of enrollment decline, I'd bet you'd have tight margins," he says.

With enrollment in UM programs dropping across the board, university officials say they are conducting a "full court press" to recruit and keep more students.

"This is clearly the most important issue that we're dealing with," Brown says.

Those efforts began several years ago. Early on, the university hired an Iowa-based marketing firm to contact prospective students through phone and email, but the firm was let go last year when its work didn't yield results and led to mistakes, Brown says. One set of communications incorrectly referred to the university as "Montana State." UM now conducts its recruitment in-house.

In 2013, a university working group urged the administration to make enrollment its top priority and generated a list of recommended actions. Around the same time, Engstrom told the Montana Board of Regents that UM is facing an enrollment "problem."

A significant change came last week, when Engstrom announced that Vice President for Student Affairs Teresa Branch will retire at the end of the year and that her replacement will focus on "enrollment management." Brown says the administration will be looking for a candidate "who thinks about enrollment management every day and maybe even dreams about it at night."

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