Pandemic pinches enrollment throughout Montana University System

Declines not as steep as national averages on most campuses

By: - January 12, 2021 5:26 am

The University of Montana is the flagship campus in Missoula. (Photo provided by UM.)

When the pandemic hit the Treasure State in March, Montana campuses started preparing for the worst.

Montana State University in Bozeman budgeted for a $12.3 million drop in tuition revenue from a high of $145.1 million the previous fiscal year, or an 8 percent slide, according to data from the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education.

The feared nosedive ended up more like a dip instead.

MSU lost 3 percent of both its headcount and full time equivalents, said Janelle Booth, government affairs director for the Bozeman campus. Most students returned, she said, and new freshmen joined the flagship.

“That’s encouraging considering the fact that every university across the nation has seen an enrollment decline,” Booth said. “… We had a bit of savings that helped us bridge some of this enrollment decline, and even though we’re still planning ahead in a very conservative manner, we’re cautiously optimistic.”

Altogether, the Montana University System headcount dropped 7.2 percent; not all students attend full time, and campuses lost 6.1 percent of their enrollment when counted by full time equivalents, according to data from the Commissioner’s Office.

Across the country by comparison, public four-year institutions lost on average 10.5 percent of their enrollment, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

During the last decade, MSU has been an outlier with steady growth in Montana, and the University of Montana has been struggling to reverse a downward trajectory. This year, UM’s decline wasn’t as pronounced as the national average.

At UM, enrollment dropped 7.2 percent from last fall by full time equivalents and 6.5 percent by headcount. In a video “Fireside Chat” last month, UM President Seth Bodnar said the downturn wasn’t nearly as devastating as the campus feared.

“Certainly, it presents some challenges for us budgetarily,” Bodnar said. “I think higher education institutions across the country are facing significant budget shortfalls, not just from the enrollment piece, but all of our auxiliary revenues.” 

He cited revenue from athletics and arts performances as examples.

Tuition dollars follow enrollment, and although the trend has fluctuated, the Montana University System has seen a 13 percent dip in student numbers since 2011. It’s a trend higher education officials note was projected with the same decline forecast in high school graduates.

Roughly nine months since coronavirus infections hit Montana, some public colleges have muscled through needed transformations — in his presentation about UM, Bodnar counted 4,000 courses pushed online, hundreds of indoor classrooms reconfigured, and roughly 12 outdoor classrooms set up on the main Missoula campus alone.

More challenges lie ahead in the short term, but the Commissioner’s Office projects enrollment will start ticking back up in Montana with high schools starting to graduate more seniors.

“I think five years from now, we’ve recovered about half of the high school graduates that we lost,” said Tyler Trevor, deputy commissioner of budget and planning for the Montana University System.


UM in particular has grappled since 2011 with an ongoing slump in undergraduates. In the online Fireside Chat with President Bodnar in December, College of Business faculty member and session moderator Justin Angle said two questions come up most frequently when people ask about the university:

“Are we going to win the Brawl of the Wild?”

“What’s up with enrollment?”

In February, Bodnar said UM was feeling positive about the upcoming school year. Nonresident applications had increased 30 percent and even a cautious estimate put UM up a couple of hundred students in the fall.

“COVID hits and that optimism went to probably, by June, panic, frankly,” Bodnar said. 

At the time, national projections had campuses across the country down 20 percent, he said. Fall numbers didn’t turn out quite that low across the nation or at UM. Still, the number of freshman students dropped 13 percent on average in the U.S., an “unprecedented” fall, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. They fell 12 percent at UM, according to data on the university’s website.

In the chat hosted by the Alumni Association, Bodnar said he’s thinking about what the right enrollment looks like for UM in 10, even 20 years, and also working on the immediate situation. Applications are up again “significantly” at UM, he said, but nationally, applications for financial aid are down 17 percent.

“We feel, again, optimistic about what we’re seeing, but there’s still a lot of uncertainty out there in the near term,” Bodnar said.


Although the Commissioner’s Office sees a positive trend in the years ahead for college enrollment with an upswing in high school graduates, fall 2020 saw 22 percent fewer high school students immediately enroll in college across the country during the pandemic, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Doug Shapiro, head of the center, told the Chronicle of Higher Education that low-income students are at particular risk of not returning to school at all.

“Upper-income students who took gap years, they will be enrolled next year,” Shapiro told the Chronicle. “But low-income students are stopping out for very different reasons — for financial reasons, or because they’ve been hit more directly by the health impact of COVID-19. It will be much harder for them to recover.”

The Montana University System awards state and federal financial aid for students based on need, but the proportion and amount of dollars going to students who need it most has dropped, according to data from the Commissioner’s Office. A decade ago, Montana provided $64.2 million in state and federal dollars for students based on need, and last school year, it awarded $45.5 million in need-based aid, according to the Commissioner’s Office.

When the higher education budget goes before committee later this month in the Montana Legislature, lawmakers will scrutinize all the numbers. MSU’s Booth said the main objectives are to educate homegrown students and ensure affordable tuition.

“The first thing that always emerges as our priority is making sure we are providing affordable education to the sons and daughters of Montana,” Booth said. “ … We are not in a time of economic certainty where everyone is comfortable and feeling secure about the future. It’s the opposite for a lot of our students.”

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.