University of Montana fears enrollment dip 

It's May, which means admissions offices at college campuses around the country are buzzing, and they're all focused on one thing: yield, the percentage of admitted students who actually enroll. While the University of Montana operates under a rolling-admissions system, meaning enrollment numbers won't be solid until September, the admissions office is keeping an especially close eye on its yield this spring in the wake of a string of sexual assault allegations, some involving football players, that have damaged the school's image.

"We are concerned, of course," says Jed Liston, UM's assistant vice president for enrollment. "Any kind of publicity that is in a negative tone, I get concerned."

And negative publicity just keeps coming. On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Justice announced its investigation into how the university, and the city and county, have handled the sexual assault cases. The announcement followed the high-profile firings of UM's football coach and athletic director in late March. Late last year, reports surfaced that two UM students were drugged and gang-raped by several male students. UM hired an outside investigator, who uncovered nine cases of alleged sexual assault between September 2010 and December 2011. And the federal Department of Education received a complaint alleging harassment by members of the football team.

Liston won't disclose how many applications UM received this year, but he says the number's on par with recent years. It's too early to make any determinations about whether concerns over student safety will affect enrollment, he says, though his office has noted an uptick in the number of calls from prospective students and their parents asking about it.

"I suppose we have some who have said, 'OK, I've taken [UM] off my list,'" Liston says, "but when we don't have, necessarily, a May 1 deadline, we don't necessarily know. We're going to continue with business as usual."

That means aggressively reaching out to admitted applicants. For the first time, President Royce Engstrom sent a letter to each one, but that wasn't in response to the bad publicity, Liston says.

"This is a big, emotional decision," Liston adds, referring to what prospective students are facing.

And those decisions will have a big impact on UM's budget.

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