Fall 2021 enrollment counts announced last month have delivered some welcome news for the Montana University System: For the first time in nearly a decade, the state’s 16 public colleges and universities have seen their combined enrollment increase.

The uptick wasn’t huge — the equivalent of only a few hundred full-time students, or a less than 1% gain over the previous school year, according to data presented by state education officials at last month’s meeting of the Montana Board of Regents. But with college enrollment down nationally, it’s enough to buck a trend that has troubled college administrators.

“As a system, we’re very encouraged by these numbers heading in the right direction after a few years of decline,” Tyler Trevor, a deputy commissioner at the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, told the regents.

Enrollment overall is still well below pre-pandemic levels, both system-wide and at the individual campus level. And, as Trevor said in an interview with Montana Free Press this week, the numbers are far shy of the peak enrollment years Montana’s flagship universities and community colleges saw in the aftermath of the 2008 recession.

As evidenced by fall headcount data for the last decade, overall statewide enrollment has largely tracked downward since fall 2012. The celebratory tone Trevor struck with the regents in May was echoed by his colleague Scott Lemmon, OCHE’s director of admissions and enrollment strategy.

“We’re hoping that we have found a bottom for another long, long run rate on the incline from a new student perspective,” Lemmon said.

A good portion of the recent increase was driven by steady non-resident enrollment gains at Montana State University in Bozeman, which continues to boast the university system’s largest student body. MSU’s total student headcount last fall was 16,027, with nearly half of those categorized as non-resident students.

On some other Montana campuses, though, downward trends from the past decade have persisted. Specifically at the system’s two- and four-year institutions (excluding Montana’s three community colleges), certain categories of students have begun to rebound from slumps associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, or have even shown signs of progressive growth since 2012. That’s largely in response to the system’s efforts to court particular demographics such as graduate students and high-schoolers looking to get a jumpstart on their college careers.

THE RESIDENCY FACTOR

Contained within Montana’s overall enrollment gain this year were statewide increases in the number of both resident and non-resident students. On the resident side, the increase was driven primarily by the state’s two-year campuses, which in several cases showed signs of rebounding from pandemic-fueled dips in fall 2020. Full-time resident student gains last fall at Helena College and City College in Billings were complemented by increases in part-time resident students on several campuses, including Gallatin College and Missoula College.

Helena College Dean and CEO Sandra Bauman said COVID-19 was undoubtedly a factor in the campus’ abrupt decline a year and a half ago, with students putting higher education on pause while they navigated uncertainties associated with their children’s schooling and other family issues. But shy of that dip, she attributed the two-year institution’s growth in part to heightened student interest in trades education. Helena College’s average student age has been trending down, she added.

“We are recruiting more younger students who are starting at Helena College with a goal of either completing a two-year degree that leads directly to employment or starting here and transferring on to a four-year, or both,” Bauman said.

Meanwhile, Montana’s four-year campuses, including MSU and UM, posted another year of resident student decline, which has been ongoing for much of the past decade. Trevor attributes that downward trend to a significant drop in the number of Montana high school graduates during the same time period, a development he characterized as a “natural decline.”

Montana high school graduation counts were down to roughly 9,000 students in 2021, a 4.2% decrease since 2013, according to data from the Montana Office of Public Instruction. The number of resident students enrolled in the state university system, in comparison, decreased by 23% over that same time period.

The situation has been exacerbated by a decline in the number of in-state students seeking a post-secondary education, according to MSU Vice President of Communications Tracy Ellig. Ellig said the combined picture has prompted campuses and the university system as a whole to explore new ways to encourage resident enrollment. Those efforts range from MSU’s establishment of the Hilleman Scholars Program for Montana students five years ago to the state’s Montana 10 pilot program, which offers scholarships, textbook stipends and tutoring for participating students.

At MSU in particular, the resident student decline has been offset by a significant rise in the number of non-resident students. The university, which had nearly twice as many Montana students as non-resident students in fall 2012, now has only 507 fewer non-residents than residents on its Bozeman campus.

Ellig said MSU has emphasized attracting the out-of-state segment of its campus population primarily because those students pay higher tuition rates. In essence, he said, non-resident enrollment is “effectively subsidizing” the education of MSU’s resident students. He also said that the amount of the university’s operating budget covered by state tax dollars allocated by the Montana Legislature has dropped by 17.2% since fall 2012. Absent an increase in those allocations or an increase in resident tuition rates, Ellig continued, MSU has relied on out-of-state enrollment to maintain services and meet the increasing costs of higher education. 

That emphasis on non-resident students, at MSU and elsewhere, is a development Trevor is keenly aware of.

“Campuses, really just to make ends meet, have increased their attention — not taken it away from the resident students, but increased attention on non-resident students — because they’re finding that’s where pools of students are,” Trevor said. “And they’ve done a good job of it. That’s great for the Montana economy, and it’s filled some gaps while we’ve gone through this natural lull of resident students.”

THE UNDERGRADUATE/GRADUATE PICTURE

The bulk of recent enrollment growth trumpeted by OCHE last month occurred on the undergraduate side. For MSU, that increase signaled a rebound from two years of undergraduate enrollment decline. For the University of Montana and the system’s other four-year campuses, though, last fall’s uptick marked the first year of undergraduate enrollment growth after 10 years of precipitous decline.

Both MSU and UM also posted gains among graduate students. But where MSU’s graduate population has hovered around the 2,000-student mark for the past decade, the number of graduate students at UM has been gradually climbing since fall 2016. According to UM Director of Strategic Communications Dave Kuntz, the increase is due in large part to the university’s ramped-up investments in on-campus research. Kuntz said UM’s research expenditures have grown from $55 million in 2014 to $138 million last year, and this February, the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education upgraded UM to its highest tier of research activity classification. That focus has expanded the opportunities available to graduate students in forestry, wildlife biology, medicine and other disciplines.

UM has attracted a rising number of non-resident, part-time graduate students — a portion of the Missoula campus’ population that has increased from 463 students in fall 2012 to 1,065 in fall 2021. UM Director of Admissions John Massena said that includes students working on obtaining in-state residency and students chipping away at graduate degrees while holding down full-time jobs.

“In this day and age, a lot of grad students, they’re looking for flexibility because often they have families, they’re working, they might be going back to school to establish themselves in a second or third field,” Massena said. “I think we see some of our out-of-state grad growth from that.”

FULL-TIME V. PART-TIME

UM’s graduate enrollment trend isn’t the only place where part-time students have played into the recent uptick. Overall, part-time enrollment numbers across the Montana University System tracked upward last fall alongside full-time enrollment, rebounding to pre-pandemic levels. The bump was particularly notable on Montana’s two-year campuses, where part-time enrollment jumped by dozens — or, in the case of Helena College, hundreds — of students.

Trevor said one of the primary factors in those part-time increases is dual enrollment, or the number of high school students taking campus courses for college credit. Higher education officials and state lawmakers have focused heavily on enhancing and incentivizing dual enrollment in recent years, including the August 2018 launch of the One-Two-Free program, which grants eligible high school students free enrollment in up to two college-level courses. According to OCHE, the number of dual enrollment participants in Montana grew from 3,458 during the 2014-15 school year to 8,455 in 2019-20, with more than a quarter of eligible high school students now participating.

The university system now has nearly 14,000 part-time students, up from 12,000 a decade ago, Trevor said.

“I attribute most if not all of that to dual enrollment,” he said. “That’s been a major, major push by the Board of Regents for quite some time.”

Bauman said dual enrollment has become a significant driver in Helena College’s growth in recent years. Many of those part-time enrollees are high school students taking concurrent courses for both high school and college credit, she said, but the college also saw a near-doubling last fall of the number of high school students coming to campus for college-only credit.

“We were serving almost as many high school kids as we were people on campus,” Bauman said of dual enrollment counts overall last fall. “It’s made a dramatic difference for us as an institution.”

ONGOING PRESSURES

Now that Montana has posted its first year of positive enrollment growth in a decade, the challenge for higher education leaders will be maintaining or building on that momentum. At UM, Massena said he’s heartened by what’s shaping up to be another strong freshman class this fall, and the university has so far been able to guarantee on-campus housing for every student. But growth brings new challenges, he added, and the question of when UM’s residence halls will hit full capacity is one that’s “looming in front of us all the time.” According to Kuntz, UM already has waitlists for its off-campus housing options, which, as a result of escalating Missoula rental prices, aren’t experiencing the same rate of turnover they did five years ago.

The rising cost of housing in general has become an increasing issue not just at UM but across the university system, and it’s not just students who are feeling the impacts. Kuntz cited housing affordability and availability as the biggest challenge UM faces in recruiting new faculty and staff. At the same May meeting where he announced the enrollment uptick, Trevor also briefed the Regents on the Montana University System’s escalating struggles with employee turnover and increased vacancies.

Speaking with MTFP, Trevor noted that those challenges aren’t unique to Montana’s flagship campuses. The same economic pressures are present throughout the state and the nation, he said, and as Montana looks to capitalize on a strong enrollment showing this year, higher education leaders will be closely monitoring how those factors are influencing the decisions of prospective students.

“The number one thing that we’re going to look at is alternatives for students with the economy right now,” Trevor said. “Keep in mind, a lot of the starting salaries anywhere you want to go are $20 to $25 an hour. If you look at the most college-hesitant population in our state, it’s really hard to continue to communicate that value proposition to students who have a variety of options right out of high school.”

latest stories

DEQ seeks comment on electric vehicle charging station build-out plan

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality is seeking public input on a draft plan to build electric vehicle charging stations along key travel corridors in Montana. Once finalized, the plan will detail how Montana intends to spend $43 million in federal funds earmarked for direct-current electric vehicle charging infrastructure that was included in the $1.2…

Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...

Eric came to journalism in a roundabout way after studying engineering at Montana State University in Bozeman (credit, or blame, for his career direction rests with the campus's student newspaper, the Exponent). He has worked as a professional journalist in Montana since 2013, with stints at the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network before joining the Montana Free Press newsroom in Helena full time in 2019.