By Martin Kidston

Colleges and universities from across the Pacific Northwest gathered at the University of Montana this week, hoping to entice hundreds of students from high schools around Missoula to enroll and become future alumni.

The 2016 College Fair came just days after UM released its own enrollment figures, which showed a continued decline in the overall headcount. The university also unveiled a new strategy to compete with schools across the region in the challenging world of student recruitment.

Other regional schools have reported similar recruiting challenges, though many of the 80-plus institutions in attendance this week described their college as unique. Students came by the hundreds looking for additional information on everything from academic programs to campus life.

“Most of the students I've talked to today are juniors, and they're asking really good questions – they've been prepped very well,” said Jessie Lynch, a visitation programs counselor for Washington State University. “For me, it's all about providing the right fit. If I'm working with a student who I don't think is a good fit for WSU, I'll be the first to send them over to another college.”

Schools across Montana staffed booths at this week's fair, including private schools like Carroll College and smaller programs like the Blackfeet Community College. Other lesser-known regional schools, including WyoTech and Augsburg College, were also on hand.

Shaun Bummer, an admissions counselor for Oregon Tech, said students often seek out the smaller schools with a program already in mind. For Oregon Tech, that includes engineering and medicine.

“Students really quiz me on our engineering programs, medical and health care programs,” he said. “We're a school most of these students have never heard of before, so it's good for them to get a really good idea what's out there, both in the state and out of state.”

Jackee McDonald, an admissions counselor at Portland State University, said students have also asked her about the school's technology and premedical programs, as well as study abroad opportunities.

For some Montana students, she said, PSU's urban campus may not be a good fit.

“For students in Montana, they think Portland, but I just want to make sure they know we're urban and we're downtown,” she said. “That can be a huge change, but we have the best of both worlds. You're in the city and so you have that city experience, but you also have a very traditional campus.”

Location and campus setting often play a role in a student's choice of college. So too do a school's academic programs. Other considerations, from scholarships to affordability, also come into play.

It can make choosing the right school difficult, and it can make recruiting more competitive as schools vie to get their message out.

“Across the board in higher education and recruiting, it's a challenge because there are so many awesome universities,” said McDonald. “So it has to do with what makes your campus unique and what you really want to highlight that sets you apart from every other state.”

Academic advisers helping the newest crop of Montana high school students take the next step advise them on finding a college that fits their style. They also encourage students to browse the Internet and explore their options.

Meeting face-to-face with a campus representative from the University of Oregon or UM doesn't hurt, according to Amy Leary with the Montana Post Secondary Educational Opportunities Council.

“When you're talking about these big life-changing events, like going to college or going into the military, it's nice to have a face with the place,” she said. “This is a chance for someone to get to know the campuses. If they do a campus visit, there's a connection there. It's not just an email they got or a link they saw online.”

While schools across the region may quietly compete for students, Leary said university recruiters aren't looking to pressure students.

“We're pretty good at having reps who want to help students and not just recruit them,” said Leary. “We try to circumvent that competitive nature, though it does happen. In the end, most of the reps are here to help the students get to where they want to be.”