Montana University System officials said they feared enrollment could drop significantly this spring as students weighed their options during the COVID-19 pandemic, echoing similar calls around the nation.
For Montana State University Billings, that has become reality.
About 400 fewer students enrolled this semester than last fall, a roughly 10% drop by headcount.
That's a smaller drop than university officials budgeted for, interim Chancellor Rolf Groseth said Tuesday. MUS officials told campuses to brace for up to a 15% enrollment decline, and some national experts warned of steeper drops.
"I feel pretty good about where we're at," he said. "To be honest, I don't know that we were going to be able to estimate this."
Montana's funding system allocates a large share of money on a per-student formula, making enrollment critical to schools' financial health. MSUB, which has struggled to reverse multi-year enrollment drops before traditional recruitment pipelines were knotted up by the pandemic, could still face some challenges.
Neither of Montana's flagship universities in Bozeman and Missoula have given enrollment reports this fall. An MUS Board of Regents meeting is set for Wednesday.
Full-time equivalent enrollment, which measures how many credits students are taking and is used in the university funding formula, had a similar drop, down about 9% from last year.
MSUB reported 2,184 FTE students and City College reported about 583 FTE students. Headcount, which reflects the number of enrolled students regardless of how many classes they take, stood at about 2,500 for MSUB and 1,500 for City College.
Money that's been given to public universities from the CARES Act and Gov. Steve Bullock's coronavirus relief fund is "probably not" enough to make up the gap left by falling enrollment and increased operational costs because of new safety measures, Groseth said. But, the money has helped the school stay afloat.
"We couldn't have existed without the support from the governor, the CARES Act," Groseth said. "(But) I think we're left with some decisions to make about our budgets."
Officials said they also believed an earlier start date for the fall semester could have deterred some students. The semester began several weeks earlier than usual so that it could end before Thanksgiving, hopefully avoiding a wave of student travel and increased exposure to the novel coronavirus.
Some bright spots did come out of the school's usual fall data release. The school had a larger share of last year's freshmen continue than in recent years and more students signed up for graduate programs.
The retention metric, which is included in MSUB's performance funding formula, has been a multi-year focus.
Provost Melinda Arnold ascribed the 4% increase to stronger efforts in areas like tutoring and academic support, and swift adaptation to offer services online when campuses shut down in-person instruction last spring.
"We have made very intentional efforts," Arnold said.
The university enrolled more graduate students than in the previous year, with a 6% overall increase. That follows an 8.5% increase in graduate student headcount last year.
Dual enrollment, a program that allows high schoolers to take university courses, also dipped. The earlier fall start day knocked university schedules off kilter with high schools, and a statewide program that offered high schoolers two free courses expired.
The headcount split between MSUB and City College shifted substantially. About 2,500 students enrolled at MSUB, and 1,500 at City College. That's a loss of about 200 students at each campus, and a reversal of an upward trend for City College.
The 2-year campus had risen from 1,275 students in 2015 to 1,725 last fall. At least some of that increase had been driven by explosive growth in dual enrollment; it's so far unclear how much of the decrease reflects dual enrollment students or more traditional 2-year students.