Montana State Sets All-time Record, University of Montana Sees Headcount Jumps

Both institutions are touting gains they are making with students when it comes to the value and cost of a college education

By KEILA SZPALLER, Daily Montanan

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.”

This story originally appeared in the The Daily Montanan, which can be found online at dailymontanan.com.

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