Scenic view of Montana State University in Bozeman, featuring academic buildings, surrounded by lush greenery against a backdrop of distant mountains and a cloudy sky
The campus of Montana State University in Bozeman. Credit: Adobe stock. May not be republished without license.

Student enrollment across the Montana University System this fall hit its highest point since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, driven by growth in the number of resident and nonresident students on 10 of the state’s 16 public campuses.

The data, taken from an annual systemwide headcount conducted on the 15th day of the fall semester, indicates the total student population across those campuses is now 42,010 — a significant increase from the 39,596 recorded in fall 2020 but still several thousand below pre-pandemic highs in 2016 and 2017. The increase included an uptick in the number of in-state students across the system, a number that’s become a top priority for the system’s governing Board of Regents following a sharp decline in fall 2020.

“We’re definitely ultra interested in the resident student enrollment,” Tyler Trevor, deputy commissioner for budget and planning at the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, told Montana Free Press this week. “We give kind of a larger level of discretion to individual campuses to develop their own strategies on nonresidents, but we provide system-level strategies and initiatives related to resident student access.”

Enrollment at the University of Montana continued a gradual post-pandemic rebound, posting what Director of Strategic Communications Dave Kuntz characterized as the largest single-year increase at UM in the past 14 years. Gains on both UM’s main campus and the affiliated Missoula College brought the fall headcount in Missoula to 10,327 — powered largely, Kuntz said, by UM’s biggest freshman class since 2016.

The share of resident students at UM remained steady at 58%, a trend Kuntz attributed to growth initiatives such as Grizzly Promise, a financial aid program launched last year that covers up to four years of tuition and fees for Montana students who come from families with annual incomes below $50,000.

“Coming out of the pandemic, we’ve become a much more competitive choice for Montana resident students looking to continue their education,” Kuntz told Montana Free Press this week. “It really underscores our mission of access.”

At Montana State University in Bozeman, the fall count marked the single largest enrollment figure in the flagship’s 130-year history: 16,978 students, including attendance at the two-year Gallatin College campus. That record was driven in large part by continued growth in non-resident students, who as of last fall make up the majority of MSU’s main campus population. Resident student counts declined slightly for the sixth consecutive year, though MSU continues to host the highest number of residents of any campus in the university system.

Vice President of University Communications Tracy Ellig said there are several factors at play in MSU’s resident/nonresident demographics. One of those, Ellig continued, is the “old saw” of how university funding works in Montana. While the Legislature does allocate some state dollars to higher education, MSU and other state campuses rely far more on revenue generated from tuition and fees, which are on average three to four times higher for nonresidents than residents. Another key factor, Ellig said, is that the pool of potential in-state recruits has remained largely stagnant over the past decade.

“The system, all the campuses, are basically squeezing that turnip as hard as they can,” Ellig said, noting that MSU enrolled 1,400 resident freshmen this fall. “We’re incredibly proud of the number of Montana residents that are coming to MSU.”

Statewide data from the university system shows that the number of graduating high schoolers in Montana has hovered just below 10,000 a year since fall 2013. Over the same span, recruitment of those graduates across the system’s 16 campuses gradually fell to just under 3,000 during the pandemic. While that “capture rate” has ticked up slightly the past two years, Trevor said the numbers echo national trends and are part of a “natural decline” that his office is keenly aware of.

“Demographically, the Baby Boomers’ kids weren’t having as many kids,” he added. “Our population’s grown in Montana, but the population isn’t growing of college-going students.”

In press releases announcing the latest numbers, UM and MSU both trumpeted enrollment increases among minority students, particularly Indigenous students. The campuses now tally 750 and 817 Indigenous students, respectively. UM also made special note that its graduate student count, at 1,833, is the highest in the state.

According to state data, enrollment at UM Western in Dillon increased slightly over last fall, while main campus headcounts at Montana’s other four-year institutions — Montana Tech in Butte, MSU-Northern in Havre and MSU Billings — dipped by a few dozen students or less. However, Montana Tech did note that when combined with the affiliated Highlands College, overall enrollment was up from fall 2022, and that the number of high school students taking dual credit courses was the highest it’s been in at least five years. MSU Billings similarly reported that a slight decline in the main campus’ headcount was offset by an increase at the affiliated City College. 

With the exception of a small decline at Dawson Community College in Glendive, overall enrollment at Montana’s two-year campuses showed signs of continued growth. State officials, lawmakers and educators have emphasized trades-based education in recent years, launching new initiatives and establishing new funding streams to direct students toward career paths in health care, construction, teaching and technology. Trevor noted that particular slice of the university system saw a collective increase of roughly 1,000 students, further reversing a yearslong decline that began more than a decade ago.

“After the Great Recession, two-year education in the state was booming,” Trevor said. “People were coming back in droves to higher education because they couldn’t find jobs … That kind of peaked, and ever since 2011, we’ve been losing students out of two-year.”

Trevor added that recent enrollment gains on two-year campuses have partly been driven by a rise in high school students who are taking college courses.

The headcount figures recorded last month offer a glimpse at the various demographic shifts on Montana campuses, but they aren’t the only numbers university officials rely on to craft budgets and gauge their institution’s health. The fall census also captures what’s known as full-time equivalent enrollment, a count that’s based on an average course load of 15 credits. One FTE in that count could be a single student taking 15 credits, Trevor said, or 15 students taking one credit each. While those numbers differ notably from the headcount — Montana’s preliminary fall 2023 FTE enrollment is 33,603 — credit-load-based figures can help campus officials determine how on-track students are to graduate in four years. Trevor added it’s also the count that the university system uses to craft its budget.

“It’s the true measure of instructional activity,” Trevor said. “You could have a big increase in headcount, but let’s just say hypothetically that a whole bunch of students came in and were only taking one credit. That really wouldn’t change the amount of instruction that you would have to provide.”

The Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education is slated to give a detailed presentation on the university system’s fall enrollment picture to the Board of Regents next month.

This story was updated after publication Oct. 27, 2023 to strike a portion of a quote where MSU spokesperson Tracy Ellig misspoke. This story was updated Oct. 30 to correct the labeling of the MSU Bozeman campus in the photo description and add additional information about enrollment trends on two-year and non-flagship four-year campuses.


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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...