By Martin Kidston
Undergraduate enrollment at the University of Montana decreased 6.1 percent on the Mountain campus in Missoula this fall, though it increased 2.2 percent at Missoula College and 3.9 percent among graduate students, the school’s new vice president of enrollment said Friday.
At a mid-day news conference that included faculty, staff and at least one member of the Montana Board of Regents, the university announced a 2016 total fall enrollment of 12,419 students, a decline of 4.8 percent from last fall’s count.
“From my point of view, the enrollment is a concern, and I have to be frank about that,” said Tom Crady, vice president of enrollment management and student affairs. “The numbers are in a downward trend, but what I’ll tell you is I’m very confident that we’re going to be able to improve, specifically with our first-year incoming students. That’s most important to me.”
Since arriving on campus this summer, Crady has begun implementing policy changes and strategies he believes will show positive results next fall.
While he withheld some of those strategies, citing the need to maintain a strategic advantage over competing universities, he said UM will begin making earlier contact with prospective students and has already launched a program to engage with younger students through Raise Me, which provides micro-scholarships to students starting in their freshman year of high school.
“Beginning in the the ninth grade, we want students to know that you have the possibility to attend a university,” said Crady. “If you work with students early enough and provide incentives to engage them, which we’re doing, it keeps students coming back.”
UM, like other regional colleges, is fighting changing demographics, with the number of 18-year-old students in several states declining. It has prompted Moody’s to rate the cycle as a negative factor weighing against higher education in the Upper Midwest, Crady said.
To overcome that, UM must develop new recruiting markets, shifting to regions where students are most abundant. It is Crady’s goal to develop two new markets each year and to send recruiters into those regions showing the strongest cohort of potential students.
Crady believes UM also must engage those potential students sooner. In the past, UM contacted students during their junior year. That direct engagement will now begin during the first semester of sophomore year.
“From my point of view, that’s a point of time where people generally develop a short list of colleges to go to,” Crady said. “We’ve moved back our marketing to begin recruiting students in the first semester of their sophomore year. That’s what we’re going to focus on.”
Despite the overall reduction in the total number of students this fall, Crady sees areas of promise. He said UM has a strong national reputation, and the Graduate School increased its student count from 2,030 last fall to 2,110 this year – an increase of 3.9 percent.
Missoula College also showed an increase in students, largely due to dual enrollment. The number of high school students taking courses at Missoula College increased 37.2 percent, from 425 students to 583.