University of Montana administrators are concerned about how the spotlight on the school’s handling of sexual assault reports over the past six months will affect enrollment numbers next fall.
“It’s certainly a concern, very much so,” said Jed Liston, UM assistant vice president for enrollment. “That maybe some people, because of the media coverage, are making their decisions about campus or developing perceptions of campus.”
The admissions office has received calls about campus safety, he said. And prospective students and parents have wanted to talk to admissions officers about how UM is handling the issue of sexual assaults.
“The president has taken decisive actions and is working very hard to make sure that campus safety and the safety of all of our students is upfront,” Liston said. “As best as we can, we’ll prevent bad things from happening to all of our students so they can have a great education.”
So far, the number of applications to the university for next fall is on par with previous years, Liston said. How many of those applicants actually wind up in classes is something UM can only guess at because it doesn’t require prospective students to notify the school if they choose not to come.
Spring semester enrollment at UM is down 400 students from spring 2011, which is one of many ways of forecasting what’s to come, said Perry Brown, UM’s interim provost.
“It’s certainly one of the variables, but not the critical variable for estimating the fall enrollment,” he said.
Part of the reason administrators pay close attention to enrollment projections is because students equate to dollars. The university needs to know how much money to anticipate in the coming year in order to construct a budget. That means knowing how many students are coming.
That is always difficult as UM has a rolling admissions policy, meaning students can apply throughout the summer and don’t have to notify the school if they choose to attend a different college.
Seniors pay more in tuition than freshmen, and out-of-state students pay more than in-state students, which also makes it difficult to know the impact on the budget. However, Brown said administrators start to notice a financial difference if there’s a fluctuation of about 50 students or more.
UM is increasing its efforts at contacting prospective students who have not solidified their decision.
A month ago, Brown sent a letter to prospective students informing them of the high-quality education they can receive at UM. It’s not something that the provost does annually, but UM is trying to have more email and personal contact with students who may be on the fence.
UM is coming off several years of record fall enrollment, with 2011 seeing 15,669 total students at the main campus and College of Technology combined.
There are a number of factors that may have led to a dip in spring enrollment from the previous year and that may continue to affect enrollments into the fall, such as the booming job market in the oil fields of eastern Montana, Brown said. Also, as the economy improves, students have a tendency to gravitate back into the workplace.
A little more than half of the students admitted to UM each year don’t end up attending. On average, high school seniors apply to five colleges, Liston said.
This past year has been challenging in terms of media exposure, Liston said, but the same number of people have applied to UM as in the past and already some of the brightest and most talented students have committed to UM for next fall, so “we’re optimistic.”
“All campuses are concerned about the publicity that surrounds them,” Liston said. “We urge all of our students to look at all of the great things going on at the campus and to make sure it’s a good fit for them.”
One thing that UM can point at to ensure the safety of its students is new educational program being developed by a group of UM faculty and led by Vice President of Student Affairs Teresa Branch.
Starting next fall, new students will be required to take a 30- to 40-minute online course on appropriate intimate relations, sexual assault and aggressive dating, Branch said. The point of the mandatory course is to help students make healthy choices and avoid problematic situations, she said.