Montana State sets all-time record, University of Montana sees headcount jumps

By: - September 25, 2023 5:04 pm

Montana State University welcomes students back to campus for the first day of the Fall 2023 semester. (Provided by Montana State University)

Montana’s largest public universities notched records this fall — Montana State University with an all-time enrollment high and University of Montana with the largest jump in headcount since 2009.

In the shadow of inflation and other pressures on household budgets, both institutions also are touting gains they are making with students when it comes to the value and cost of a college education.

First the records: MSU said its 16,978 enrollment is the highest in its history of 130 years. The Bozeman flagship said the number of students “solidifies its position as the largest university in the four-state region of Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas.”

“We are grateful and honored to be the school of choice in the state, and we will work hard to help them toward their bright futures,” said MSU President Waded Cruzado in a statement.

UM said its 3.7% increase in total headcount to 10,327 students this fall is its largest annual growth in 14 years. The Missoula flagship counts 372 more students than last fall, including enrollment at Missoula College with 201 “dual enrollment” students, high schoolers getting college credit.

UM also has 1,833 graduate students, 0.6% less than last fall, but a number still making UM the largest graduate school in Montana.

The overall uptick at UM follows a previous and persistent undergraduate enrollment slide before the pandemic that drew national attention.

“The University of Montana is firmly ingrained in a period of growth,” said UM President Seth Bodnar in a statement. “By combining a record student retention rate with three consecutive years of growing incoming classes, our university’s growth trajectory is on a clear and upward path.”

In recent years, questions about the value of a college education have arisen in the country, especially in light of student debt. Many students leave universities with significant debt, an average $32,414 in Montana, according to Forbes.

But UM spokesperson Dave Kuntz said Monday the national storyline has overshadowed the picture in Montana. In some ways, he said a university competes not against other campuses but against the idea of whether a student should go to college at all.

However, he said under President Bodnar’s leadership at UM, the Missoula university has “leaned into our access mission.” And the number of resident students at UM has increased.

Residents are the population the Montana University System was originally designed to serve, although those students don’t pay nearly as much in tuition. Both campuses highlighted their resident numbers in respective news releases.

UM noted 66.5% of its population as residents, an increase of 5.5% from the previous fall. Kuntz also noted that nearly one in four students at UM is a first-generation college student: “That proportion is really high, and it’s something we’re incredibly proud of.”

MSU counts fewer than half of its enrollment as residents, 48%, but as the largest institution, it also enrolls more residents than any other university in Montana at 8,195.

In December, Kuntz said UM started offering prospective students the Grizzly Promise, a pledge that any student whose family makes $50,000 or less per year can attend school with no cost in tuition or fees.

Kuntz said UM basically stacks up aid that’s already available — federal grants, any scholarship the student qualifies for, any waiver the student is eligible for — and the university kicks in the rest.

The first students taking advantage of the Grizzly Promise are part of this fall’s enrollment. Kuntz said the difference is relatively affordable for UM, and the program is renewable for students who keep a minimum 2.5 grade point average.

“That alone has shifted a lot of thinking among potential students and families about how accessible college is,” Kuntz said.

This fall, UM counted its largest incoming class in seven years at 1,373. That number includes a 12.5% increase in Montana first-year students compared to last fall, and it represents a more than 20% increase in resident first-year students since fall 2021.

MSU also touted the way it supports keeping college more affordable for students. In a news release, MSU discussed its “Freshman 15” push, to encourage students to take advantage of tuition rules to save money.

“Students do not pay tuition for credits beyond the first 12 they take per semester, so 15 or 18 credits costs the same as 12,” MSU said in the news release. “Taking more credits per semester means students will make swifter progress and graduate on time.”

As a result, those students will graduate sooner and with less college debt — or even no debt at all, said Steve Swinford, vice president for student success, in the news release.

MSU said this fall, 81% of new, first-time students and 64% of all undergraduate students enrolled in 15 or more credits — “both record numbers.” MSU said 12 years ago, just 50% of the students took 15 or more credits.

“There are few things as potent in helping students and their families keep costs down as taking 15 or more credits per semester,” Cruzado said in the news release. “It is a message we have been pressing since 2011.”

Highlights: Montana State University

In a news release, Montana State University highlights included the following:

  • MSU reported a record 906 students at Gallatin College MSU, which includes dual enrollment, or high school students taking college credit. The college’s enrollment was up 21%, or 156 students, compared to last fall.
  • A record was set this fall in full-time equivalent — or FTE — enrollment at 15,411. FTE is calculated by dividing the total number of credits taken by all MSU students by 15, which is the number in a full-time course load.
  • In terms of keeping students in school, MSU saw 77.9% of its first-time, full-time students return for a second fall term, a measure called “retention.” That rate is up 2.7 percentage points over last fall.
  • When all new students are counted — including full-time, part-time and transfer students — the retention rate is 75.4%, the highest rate seen in at least 15 years.
  • MSU’s four-year graduation rate increased to 37.8%, and its six-year rate increased to 57.4%. The university awarded 3,503 degrees in the past year, the second highest total on record. Among those were 2,535 bachelor’s degrees, 540 master’s degrees, 104 doctoral degrees, 91 graduate certificates, 124 associate degrees and 97 workforce certificates.
  • Among MSU’s students, 14,885 were undergraduate students, and 2,093 were enrolled in graduate studies. Both of those tallies are up 2% over fall 2022 numbers, with the grad student enrollment being the second highest on record.
  • MSU’s incoming class of first-time students is the third largest in history at 3,634. Of those, 1,400 were Montana residents.
  • Just over 30% of MSU’s students live in on-campus housing between MSU’s residence halls and apartments for graduate students, a total of nearly 5,200 students — the highest total ever. MSU’s residence halls are at 96% capacity and have been at or near capacity for a decade.
  • The number of students taking advantage of veteran benefits at MSU was up 2% this fall to 556. MSU has been named a top university in the nation three years in a row for its support of student veterans.
  • MSU attracted 72% of the state’s Montana University System Scholarship winners, a total of 144 students. The university has been the top choice for MUS Scholarship winners for more than a decade.
  • MSU enrolled record numbers of African-American students (293), American Indian/Alaska Native students (817), Asian students (708) and Hispanic students (955).

Highlights: University of Montana

In a news release, the University of Montana highlighted the following:

  • UM’s student retention rate rose 2% to 76% this fall, which is an all-time high. This figure measures the rate that students persist between their first and second year at UM. Since taking over as president in 2018, Bodnar has helped raise the student retention rate by 8%.
  • Missoula College, UM’s two-year college, enrolled 1,436 total students this fall. This is an 18.2% increase over last year – including 393 Missoula-area high school dually enrolled students – a 104.7% jump over 2022.
  • The growth in recent years at UM has bolstered the university’s finances. This fall, tuition revenue for the university is $43.6 million, which is 11.7% higher than the same period in 2022. “This strong census report reflects UM’s growing fiscal strength,” said Paul Lasiter, UM
    vice president for operations and finance, in a statement. “These additional resources will allow us to continue making the kinds of investments needed to ensure our students succeed.”
  • UM’s AccelerateMT enrolled 827 students in non-degree, short-term workforce development programs over the past year. These courses are taught in conjunction with local businesses to meet growing labor demands.
  • In fall 2023, Native American student enrollment is up 5.2%, with 750 Native students enrolled. Since 2018, the number of Native Americans enrolled at UM has increased by 30%.
  • The 2,066 first-generation students enrolled at UM represent a 5.6% increase over 2022.
  • Currently, 23.2% of UM students are the first in their family to attend college and the number of veteran students on campus is up to 335, which is a 20% increase over the previous year. “UM’s mission is to achieve inclusive prosperity,” Bodnar said. “Our ability to adapt and innovate to accomplish this mission is illustrated by the numerous ways we are meeting the needs of our state. With Montana’s largest graduate school, dual-enrollment population and workforce development programs, we are ensuring every Montanan has a pathway to access the education and training needed to secure a higher-paying job.”
  • UM enrolled 261 first-time law school students, a 4.4% increase over 2022.
  • The university has 2,123 students on federal PELL grants, an 8.7% increase over 2022.
  • UM has a 9.2% increase in number of students served with disabilities.

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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.