Gazette opinion: Higher ed must respond to changing enrollment

2013-10-08T00:00:00Z 2013-10-08T00:00:04Z Gazette opinion: Higher ed must respond to changing enrollment The Billings Gazette
October 08, 2013 12:00 am

College enrollment counts are a mixed bag this fall at Montana institutions of higher learning.

Enrollment is up significantly at Montana State University in Bozeman and down sharply at the University of Montana in Missoula.

In Billings both Montana State University Billings and Rocky Mountain College posted slight enrollment drops.

Although final figures aren’t in for all campuses, the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education expects slight enrollment increases at UM Northern in Havre and at Montana Tech in Butte while other campuses will be down slightly.

The Bozeman campus, including the four-year colleges, graduate schools and the new two-year Gallatin College, stands out for its growth. Enrollment is up 20 percent since 2009. This fall’s enrollment is a record high of 15,294 students, which represents an increase of about 4 percent more than last fall. The College of Engineering is MSU’s fastest growing school with 3,012 students this fall.

Meanwhile in Missoula, UM counted 14,525 students this fall, down 418 from last fall or 1,100 students over the past two years. Its two-year Missoula College enrollment held steady at 2,271 as did graduate student enrollment at 2,271.

That means UM’s drop is in students pursuing four-year degrees.

At MSU Billings, officials report 3,661 students enrolled in four-year or graduate programs while 1,308 others attend City College for two-year or certificate programs. City College is down about 40 students from last fall while the main campus is down about 60 for a 2 percent decrease overall. This fall’s total enrollment of 4,969 marks the first time in the past five years that number has dipped below 5,000.

At Rocky Mountain College, enrollment is down about 61 students from a year ago, to just under 1,000 students, according to President Robert Wilmouth. That’s after about three years of growth.

In fall 2012, U.S. higher education enrollment dropped by nearly half a million students from fall 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. If UM and the Billings colleges are part of that trend, MSU Bozeman is definitely bucking it.

Enrollment numbers don’t tell the entire story of growth or success. However, these numbers must be analyzed as a critical self-assessment at each institution.

Is the college or university meeting student needs?

Is it preparing students for in-demand jobs?

Is the education accessible and affordable for Montana students?

Is the institution providing high-quality education within limited budgets?

Is the college telling its story well to prospective students?

Fall enrollment counts are a challenge to higher education leadership to carefully assess where they are going so they will better meet the needs of Montana, its students and employers.

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