In recent weeks, University of Montana officials have shared snippets about recruitment at the flagship, and enrollment has been a challenge.
The dollars and percents were interesting, but it wasn’t easy to see how they fit together:
- UM is restoring $1 million for admissions, money that had earlier disappeared.
- It increased by 6 percent the number of students who plan to attend UM in the fall on WUE scholarships, or Western Undergraduate Exchange.
- It raised “inquiries,” the number of students alerting the campus of their interest in UM, from roughly 25,000 a year to 41,000 a year.
Last week, vice president for enrollment Tom Crady and director of undergraduate admissions Emily Ferguson-Steger explained how various data provided at recent campus meetings come together to illuminate the overall enrollment picture.
Briefly, UM anticipates another overall drop this coming fall given the size of its graduating class, some 2,644, or 1,000 more students than each of the other classes.
However, Crady offered his perspective on why the freshman class of 2017 signifies a positive shift for the campus despite the bump of just 24 students. The cabinet member came on board at UM in the summer of 2016 as the first vice president assigned specifically to address the enrollment slide since 2011.
Ferguson-Steger, at UM for 16 years, commented on the ways recruitment has changed with an enrollment vice president in place.
In years past, UM grew desperate as student numbers dropped, and it chased quantities of applications, she said. But UM didn’t consider the type of student it wanted to recruit, and it did not have a seamless strategy to “convert” applicants into students, she said.
So enrollment dropped nonetheless. The result? An institution that almost “devalued ourselves in our crisis.”
“Now, we’re getting a class who is proud to come to UM … who are going to be amazing contributors to not only UM but the Missoula community,” Ferguson-Steger said.
Some members of the campus community have been skeptical of the outcomes from the enrollment office. For example, although the freshman class grew, overall enrollment dropped 4.5 percent again this fall.
In November, a UM task force charged with ranking programs didn’t consider a couple of major sectors linked to enrollment as top priorities for spending. At the time, a task force member said he didn’t believe the enrollment office had been a worthwhile investment.
“This office hasn’t done well in my opinion with funds,” said Andrew Ware, professor and chair in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.
At the time, Ware said he viewed other offices on campus as having a greater impact on enrollment. However, he said he was excited about the changes Crady was making.
This week, Ware reiterated his enthusiasm for the enrollment vice president’s new initiatives, such as micro-scholarships. Investments must be made in the enrollment office, he said, but plans for spending must be transparent.
“I’m really hopeful about the changes that Tom Crady has put in there,” Ware said.
In a report that came out of the task force, former President Sheila Stearns recommended an investment in admissions for marketing, mailing, travel, and other outreach. She also requested a detailed budget plan.
“Require that the office justify with specificity to the president ways it currently allocates its budget and how it proposes to use increased investments going forward,” read the report from Stearns, who in January 2018 passed the torch to UM President Seth Bodnar.
In recent weeks, Crady has provided brief updates related to enrollment at a cabinet meeting and budget committee, and vice president for finance Rosi Keller discussed it as well.
In a preview of the 2019 fiscal year budget, Keller said UM was planning to restore the $1 million for admissions that had been cut. She said she’s sure UM had good reason for the reduction, but it was important to budget for that item going forward.
“We just want to get it back up because we want our enrollments to go back up,” Keller said at the time.
Crady said he didn’t want to blame anyone for the cut, but he noted that he had been surprised by it. The Montana Board of Regents approved his contract in July 2016, along with a $70,000 bonus, an unprecedented amount in the Montana University System.
Officials in the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Education and UM defended the contract.
“Enrollment is the biggest challenge at UM right now, so we conducted a national search to find the best person possible … ,” said then-President Royce Engstrom.
“Tom Crady … operated successfully in some of the most competitive recruiting environments. … It took a $70,000 one-time payment to recruit him here, and I felt it was worth every penny. To meet this enrollment challenge, we will need to make strategic investments, and Tom is one of them.”
Just as he came on board, though, Crady learned $1 million had disappeared from his budget. He said at the meeting: “It was a sobering moment for me.”
In an interview, Crady said the cut left him with roughly $200,000 to recruit students. Subsequently, though, Commissioner Clay Christian provided another $1 million for enrollment, but to be split over two fiscal years, Crady said.
According to data Crady provided, UM had lost on average 104 freshmen a year since 2011, with as many as 224 lost in fall 2012 and 200 in 2015.
So enrollment and admissions officials see the uptick of 24 as an indication the campus has stanched the bleeding, and they see that figure as counting on top of the average loss of 104, or worse, 200.
They also see it in the context of a difficult 2016, when then-President Engstrom was forced to step down, among other rough news.
The same data Crady provided also showed UM had an increase of 14 freshmen in 2013 and 96 freshmen in 2014. But the enrollment vice president said those bumps came because UM exhausted its financial aid and scholarship budgets in the fall, and at one point, that budget was in the red by $1 million.
This school year, financial aid was distributed evenly over the school year, and it’s paying dividends, he said: “We’re going to come in under budget while at the same time, we’re generating a lot of money in revenue.”
At the budget committee meeting, Keller said she was pleased to see conservative and accurate projections of tuition revenue. Each day, she said she and Crady wait for an updated revenue report, and this year, tuition revenue is “changing for the good.”
At the March 1 meeting, tuition was down $754,000, but UM needed just $23,600 to make its enrollment budget, Keller said. And in the course of one day, $40,000 had come in, so the officials were hopeful.
As of Friday, enrollment was down by just $245,000, meaning UM had pulled in roughly $500,000 more than it had budgeted.
“It’s really an art to this. That’s why I enjoy it,” Crady said.
Under Crady, UM also is changing policies that affect retention and enrollment.
For instance, this school year, the enrollment vice president said he lowered the academic requirements for WUE students to more closely match peer institutions. As a result, Ferguson-Steger said UM recently saw a 6 percent bump in its enrollment.
In the past, UM canceled students who hadn’t paid by the 15th day of classes, and Ferguson-Steger said the rule made sense when enrollment was on the upswing because UM needed to ensure students didn’t overfill classes or leave seats empty.
But since enrollment is low, classes aren’t affected if students pay later, Ferguson-Steger said. And Crady said early cancellations hurt retention, another UM priority.
If UM had made cancellations on the 15th day last spring, Crady said it would have lost 1,100 students. He and Ferguson-Steger said they believe the additional time is giving students a chance to earn money.
“We’re seeing a trend with Tom’s policy where students are able to work to offset some of that bill payment,” Ferguson-Steger said.
In the past, UM focused on increasing applications, but it wasn’t “converting” those into enrollment, Crady said.
Now, UM is buying 250,000 names of high school students as opposed to 100,000 or 150,000, and it’s working to get the right students to apply, enrollment officials said. Ferguson-Steger said those people don’t just come for one year and drop out, but they graduate, develop relationships with alumni, and become donors.
The 7,000 who do apply pay an application fee, get a precisely calculated amount of financial aid for their family, and receive “lockstep” communications from UM, the officials said. The result is a higher “yield,” applicants who end up enrolling, Crady said; he also said the yield needs to continue to grow.
Since 2010, enrollment has fallen at UM nearly 25 percent, and Crady said UM can’t make up the 1,000 student difference in one year. But it has adjusted the dials and evened the flow.
“I knew we had to stabilize the first year enrollment and then begin increasing it over time. So that’s what our strategy is right now,” Crady said.
The consultants also said weak technology infrastructure was hampering UM, and they noted the enrollment team needs better support from other departments. The consultants also praised the goals and measures Crady shared with them for 2017 and 2018.
“In the fall of 2017, the team achieved success in halting a declining enrollment trend that had persisted for several years,” the report said. “The 2017 incoming class was larger than preceding years and overall net tuition revenue increased.”