UM counts record number of graduate students, MSU hits high with incoming class

Flagship leaders tout in-person education, recruitment as enrollment drivers

By: - September 29, 2021 4:09 pm

University of Montana freshmen walk up Memorial Row while participating in orientation kick off on August 24, 2021. (Provided by the University of Montana.)

Montana State University reported this fall its largest incoming class in its 128-year history, and the University of Montana is heralding an all-time high in graduate students — and its first year-to-year uptick in overall enrollment in a decade.

In Bozeman, MSU counted 3,871 new first-time students, including undergraduates, graduate students and Gallatin College MSU students, the campus said in a news release. The total enrollment is 16,841, the second-highest enrollment in history following 16,902 students in 2018, MSU said.

“I am honored and grateful that so many students have chosen Montana State,” said MSU President Waded Cruzado in a statement. “We know the power of higher education to transform lives, and the fact that so many students and their families trust MSU to help them toward their futures is a humbling reminder of our mission.”

Both MSU and the UM made gains against an enrollment slump in fall 2020 because of the pandemic. Campuses across the country experienced drops. In Montana last fall, MSU lost 3 percent, and UM fell roughly 7 percent.

MSU’s total head count this fall is 3.6 percent more than fall 2020 and 0.4 percent more than its head count of 16,766 in fall 2019, according to data from MSU’s dashboard. MSU noted its strong enrollment comes as in-person classes return.

“I think this is evidence of students and their families seeing the enormous benefit of an in-person education,” Cruzado said in a statement. “I’m very grateful for the hard work our faculty and staff have done to welcome our students back to campus this fall.”

In Missoula, UM counts 10,106 students this fall, 3 percent more than last year. The campus also described successes in graduate student enrollment, first-year students, retention and budget.

UM said the 2,637 graduate students this semester represent a 2 percent increase over the previous record set last fall. 

The Missoula flagship also counts 1,276 first-year students this fall. The campus notes it’s a 30 percent increase from the previous year’s 982 students. The number is also higher than the first-year count from 2019, prior to the pandemic shutdowns, when UM saw 1,141 first-year students, according to UM’s online dashboard.

In a news release, UM President Seth Bodnar described the enrollment trend as positive and said it reflects revamped recruitment. 

“This year marks UM’s return to growth,” Bodnar said in a statement. “We have rebuilt the way we recruit, retain and market our flagship university to prospective students. This first-year class is the result of that important work, and the entire UM family is eager for sustained enrollment growth in the years ahead.”

The flagship also cited a significant increase in retention, marking the highest figure in nearly a decade: “For the third year in a row, UM improved its student retention rate, now at 75.4 percent.”

Since 2013, UM lost some 37 percent of its enrollment, according to data from the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Education. The total head count this year is also 3.6 percent lower than in 2019, before the pandemic, according to data on the enrollment dashboard.

Over the years, the loss in students came with a drop in revenue and painful budget cuts, but this year brings a change to the financial picture at UM, the campus said.

In the news release, UM Vice President for Operations and Finance Paul Lasiter said net tuition revenues are projected to be in line with the budget and up 8 percent this fiscal year compared to last year with enrollment growth and rate increases.

In the news release, Bodnar said alumni and business networks deserve thanks in helping the university move forward: “There are people in every corner of this university who have worked extremely hard to create positive, marked change for UM, and I am deeply pleased to share in this success with them.”

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”

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