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McMullen Hall on the MSUB campus, pictured Friday.

There are 33 fewer freshman students attending both MSUB and City College this fall than last year. That's a decrease of just under 5 percent.

Some of those students contributed to the drop of 133 students at the MSUB main campus, though those figures weren't mentioned in the university's press release on Sept. 28 that proclaimed "MSU Billings' enrollment up for fall 2017."

Last week, Montana State University President Waded Cruzado echoed the release during a forum to community members and university backers.

"Now with the start of the new academic year, and the wonderful headline yesterday about student enrollment at MSUB and City College — let's hear it," she said.

The crowd responded with applause, but in truth MSUB's enrollment picture is a mixed bag. All of the gains in enrollment are at City College, which has worked to diversify its course offerings in certificate, one-year and two-year programs.

Fewer students are at the more traditional atmosphere of MSUB's main campus compared to last year, but more students are sticking around than before. Overall retention at MSUB grew 1.3 percent since last year, according to the university. 

Retention at City College fell 3.1 percent, though the university noted that both retention figures include part-time students, who may have varying schedules.

The number of full-time equivalent students fell by 2.6 percent, from 3,283 last fall to 3,196 this fall for MSUB and City College combined.

FTE is a metric used for budgeting that equalizes part-time and full-time students. In general, the figures show that the equivalent of 87 fewer full-time students are at MSUB and City College compared to last year.

The university had budgeted for a decrease of less than 1 percent.

In an email statement to The Gazette, University Relations Director Shannon Wilcox said that the lower numbers won't affect the current budget, even as state budget cuts loom over all government agencies.

MSUB and City College will use reserves to cover enrollment losses, and some open positions may not be filled to save money, Wilcox said.

State budget cuts have not yet been enacted, but preliminary figures are being floated in Helena. In a statement, Interim MSUB Chancellor Ron Larsen said that the university's budget committee will be meeting to determine the school's moves going forward.

"For FY19 (fiscal year 2019) we will need to adjust our budget and realign resources and expenditures," he said. "This is quite a challenge when we do not yet know the extent of the proposed cuts, but we have to start planning."

Larsen noted that if a special session of the Montana Legislature convenes, it may take longer than expected to get a final directive.

As for why MSUB didn't initially release details about the declining number of students on the main campus or the reduced FTE count overall, Wilcox said that it wasn't the intent of the enrollment notice. She said that FTE was a budgeting metric and not "widely understood by the general public."

"Our press release was intended for the public," she said. "They want to know whether more people are going to MSUB. For fall 2017 semester, the answer is yes."


General Assignment Reporter

Reporter for The Billings Gazette.