Last spring, Montana State University Billings set a record by graduating more than 1,000 students — its largest number ever.
With that success comes expectations for continued growth in service to the Billings region and the entire state. So it is disappointing to see that the 2012-2013 academic year enrollment has dropped from the previous year. Enrollment was down 3.6 percent in the fall semester, compared with fall 2011. And this spring semester enrollment is 2 percent less than spring 2012.
University officials have cited a number of reasons why fewer students may be at MSU Billings this year: enrollment was expected to decline after the graduation peak; an improving economy provides immediate jobs for more people, especially nontraditional students, so they choose work over additional schooling.
Altogether, MSU Billings counts 4,866 students this semester. That includes 3,567 studying on the main campus, about the same as in 2009. And that total enrollment includes 1,299 at City College — nearly 20 percent more than five years ago.
The university has 162 high school students taking classes, double the number a year ago. That's a positive trend.
Enrollment of Native American students has increased by 28 percent in the past five years, so these students now account for 6 percent of enrollment. Another positive trend.
Last fall, MSU Billings leaders noted that nearly 53 percent of university students were Yellowstone County residents and nearly 35 percent were residents of other Montana counties. Altogether, the university is educating a student body in which nearly nine out of 10 students are Montanans.
Certainly, this is the mission of our Montana University System: educating and training Montanans from young adults to mid-career adults to seniors.
To achieve that mission, the university must be continually adapting to the needs of students, potential students and Montana's economy. One measure of how well that is working is how many students are enrolling.
To see a different spring semester enrollment picture, we need look no further than Billings' sister campus in Bozeman. That campus set a record high for spring enrollment with 13,700 students — 400 more than in spring 2012. MSU also set a record for enrollment last fall.
"Our growing enrollment is evidence of the value of our programs and evidence of the quality of our faculty," said James Rimpau, MSU vice president of student success. "Students are choosing MSU because they know they will get a quality education here."
MSU Billings also offers quality education and good value for students. We look forward to seeing Billings leadership continue and enhance initiatives to get the word out about higher ed opportunities here. Enrollment should be going up, not down.