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The Ides of April

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Locals will tell you sexual assault does not happen more often at the University of Montana or in Missoula than in any other comparable schools or cities. The statistics say that too. Missoula and the University of Montana are not unique in that regard. What did put the University community on the map was its response to sexual assault.

The past five years of sexual assault scandals surrounding UM and Missoula is not about a rape epidemic, but the discrimination against victims -- the vast majority of them women -- by administrators and the criminal justice system. In that regard, UM and Missoula may not be unique either, but we are undeniably infamous. Defending the community by claiming it has just as many skeletons in its closet as every other community doesn’t draw the eye away from the pile of bones in the doorway.

When choosing where to attend college, prospective students don’t weigh the relative statistical probability of getting raped, and if raped, their chances of successfully prosecuting their rapist. They pay attention to headlines. That’s how a community becomes known as “the rape capital of America,” whether or not it deserves it. Reputation is based on what others perceive, not what they don’t see.

UM is unique among American universities for both its reputation surrounding sexual assault and its declining enrollment. It took years for University administrators to admit each year of falling enrollment wasn’t coincidental, and only recently did President Engstrom admit one of the drop’s causes is “our ongoing visibility around the topic of sexual assault.”

Determining the extent to which UM’s sexual assault reputation affects enrollment compared to others factors is a matter of quantifying how many students don’t enroll for fall semester after spring rape scandals. In early 2012 and 2015 the University faced a public relations fiasco over its response to sexual assault allegation. Each following spring semester enrollment dropped far more than expected. But correlation does not imply causation, and reputation is harder to measure than enrollment. Still, the years when UM’s struggles with sexual assault were most prominent in the national media saw precipitous enrollment declines compared to predictions, particularly among higher-paying non-resident students and incoming freshmen.

The University and Missoula may be entering another scandal year as Jon Krakauer takes the state commissioner of higher education to court to fight for student disciplinary records the Montana University System says federal law does not allow them to release. This scandal, like those in the years of UM’s worst and most unforeseen enrollment declines, will fall in April, right when high school seniors commit to colleges, administrators finalize fall semester enrollment predictions and the budget is submitted for the upcoming fiscal year. 

How enrollment and budgets work

Determining why enrollment has declined more than predicted requires knowledge of how the University defines students for budgeting purposes.

Although the administration typically uses a University-wide “headcount” to advertise enrollment, the Office of Planning, Budgeting and Analysis budgets for the next fiscal year based on the smaller figure of enrolled full-time equivalent students. FTE enrollment figures attempt to combine the different student demographics in the headcount -- part-timers, in-staters, non-trads, summer students, etc -- into a single number. Different demographics pay different tuition, but one FTE student represents the average.

OPBA calculates the retention rate of each demographic within the FTE to see how many of each student type remains at UM from the previous fall semester. They also take into account the number of students graduating at the end of the current fiscal year, and the average yield of how many students were accepted to UM and actually enrolled in previous years.

Enrollment predictions for the next fiscal year are finalized in April for the budget assumption package, which is then used to finalize the budget. Once the budget is accepted by the Board of Regents, it takes effect June 1 when the fiscal year begins. Actual enrollment figures for fall semester lag the budget by four months. When scandals erupt after the budget has already been submitted, there’s no time to react and no way to know how enrollment could be affected until the fall.

Fifty six percent of the budget comes directly from tuition, with another 41 percent coming from state funds allotted by resident student enrollment. The majority of the budget -- 80 percent -- is spent on employees and benefits.

Predicting enrollment is not an exact science. There are many variables to account for, and not enough information on what causes them to change. Models can be made more precise, but the clairvoyance required for a perfect estimating machine is science fiction; no university can do it.

Still, there are trends that provide for reasonably stable predictions. It is the unforeseen anomalies in these trends that produce enrollment predictions inaccurate enough to put UM under-budget. Determining where to begin measuring these trends can produce very different estimates. The trend of the last 5 years sees enrollment falling, but measuring 10 years back instead would include the years of rising enrollment during the recession, making enrollment look plateaued instead of descending. Measure the trend from 100 years back and UM looks to be experiencing remarkable growth. The five year trend of decline couldn’t be seen until it happened, but there were warning signs of unparalleled prediction errors as early as 2012.

Falling freshmen enrollment

First-time entering freshmen seeking 4-year degrees represent the bulk of new students UM attracts, or tries to attract, every year. Compared to smaller demographics like Missoula College students, they pay more money for more semesters and make up the largest share of the budget.

Spring semester enrollment always lags behind fall, and new fall students help make up for the mass who graduate at the end of every academic year. Over the past 5 years, an average of 73 percent of these incoming freshmen return for the following academic year. 2012 and 2015 both saw significant drops in incoming freshmen enrollment in the fall after high profile sexual assault coverage in the spring.

The Ides of April 4-year

First-time entering freshmen seeking 4-year degree

Data from Office of Planning, Budgeting and Analysis

The loss of lucrative non-residents

Because the FTE student number represents an average of many different demographics, when one demographic rises or falls significantly it isn’t visibly reflected in the FTE count. That’s exactly what happened last fall. There wasn’t a budget shortfall because too few students showed up -- the total prediction was within the margin of error -- it was because too few out-of-state students showed up. Most UM students are from Montana, but non-resident students pay about four times more in yearly tuition, so each one lost represents a much bigger hit to the budget. The magnitude of their absence is not reflected in the total FTE student population.

The 108 fewer out-of-state freshmen who showed up on August 31, 2015 than the previous fall, represents millions in tuition UM couldn’t put toward the yearly budget. Adding in non-residents who graduated, UM lost $8 million to lack of non-resident students, but since resident student enrollment was up,there was $2 million extra to offset the loss down to $6 million.

Vice President of Administration and Finance Michael Reid said these fluctuations in FTE enrollment aren’t visible when looking at budget totals.

“Just because the dollars stay the same, you gotta see what’s happening with enrollment, because that’s gonna drive the funding model of the whole budget,” Reid said. “We call ‘em hydraulics, because you push in one area and something else pops somewhere.

The other half of the $12 million deficit UM is looking at for 2017 comes from $2.8 million in salary and benefit increases, and $3.2 million in one-time spending that has to be paid back.

Reid said because the state dollars allocated for resident students for the next year is based on the current enrollment, the benefits of more resident students isn’t felt until a year later. This contrasts with non-resident students, who represent large amounts of upfront cash for the budget. That also means their absence immediately harms the budget.

“The worst thing that could happen is a big hit to your non-residents. And that’s exactly what happened,” Reid said.

The University hadn’t seen such a huge drop in out-of-state fall freshmen since 2012. Both years saw UM embroiled more than ever in rape scandals that gained national attention, and a non-resident freshmen attrition rate of more than a quarter. In-state students still show up when the glare of the national spotlight falls on UM, but lucrative non-residents go somewhere else. There are half as many out-of-state freshmen enrolled at UM then there were five years ago. 

The Ides of April

Freshmen non-resident census

Data from Office of Planning, Budgeting and Analysis

Larger classes and small classes

Graduating students are drops in enrollment that can’t be avoided. Recent graduating classes sting more than ever, as the larger freshmen classes from high enrollment depart without new freshmen to replace them. Yearly graduation rates are calculated by the registrar, and include students who graduate in fall, spring and summer semesters. According to Registrar Joseph Hickman, as of March 16 there are 3,152 students registered to graduate, with another 50-100 expected for summer.

“I would expect this year’s graduation number to be slightly lower than last year,” Hickman said.

With consistently large graduating classes and smaller numbers of incoming freshmen, the Admissions Office has the unenviable task of trying to attract greater numbers than ever. So far they’ve admitted 1,997 residents and 2,668 non-residents as of January 21 according to Associate Vice President of Enrollment and Student Success Sharon O’Hare. What matters next is the yield rate, or how many students who get into UM actually enroll. While the Admissions Office doesn’t make public records of yield rates by resident versus non-resident admittees, the average yield for all those admitted over the last five years is about 42 percent. With 4,665 potential students already admitted for the fall semester, UM could see more than 1,959 new students.

The Ides of April

Students registered to graduate per fiscal year

Data from Registrar's Office

UM’s current spring enrollment sits at 10,269 FTE students, and while the University still has months to attract new students, as of the latest graduation numbers and most recently released incoming student yield calculations, campus will have under 10,000 students. The most recent yearly enrollment prediction made public was announced by President Engstrom’s budget forum last semester as 10,915 FTE students That number is the same as this fiscal year’s FTE population. Fiscal year projections are always higher than individual semester predictions as they include summer students, but as of the most recently released figures, administrators are budgeting for an enrollment they think will stagnate, not fall. Nine of the last 10 semester FTE predictions by OPBA have been incorrect, sometimes by a hundred, once by over a thousand. While yearly FTE predictions have remained typically within budgeted range, last semester showed how the invisible demographics within the FTE count can put UM under budget even when projections are accurate. 

Things fall apart

UM’s enrollment decline began just as the University began hiring new staff and faculty to teach what was then a growing student body. According to the five year trend, things looked good, enrollment was even predicted to climb in fall 2012. It did the opposite, and how such a mistake was made might never be known. Michael Reid’s predecessor in Administration and Finance died of illness at the end of 2012, and many of OPBA’s staff was hired in the summer between when the budget was finalized and the start of fall semester, including the office’s VP, who began in late June. Her predecessor, Bill Muse, left UM in November 2011 to become vice president of administration and finance at Schreiner University in Texas. Muse did not respond to a request for comment about his years at the University of Montana.

Vice President of Integrated Communications Peggy Kuhr is unconvinced the scandals of 2012 and 2015 contributed directly to the deeper enrollment drops, although she admits they did have some effect.

“It’s always been a part of the conversation, the question is to what degree,” Kuhr said. “I think it’s tough to draw a line from A to B and conclude C.”

Kuhr says plenty of good things happened at UM during the scandal years. The University adopted PETSA, complied completely with the DOJ and DOE, and President Engstrom proudly attended a screening of “The Hunting Ground,” a documentary on campus rape, when it played in Missoula.

“The negative news tends to stick in your head,” Kuhr said.

UM didn’t show the film on campus, but MSU did.

The gamble

The community has a role in prolonging these scandals through noncooperation with federal investigators and bestselling authors alike. The University may have fired suspect administrators and cooperated fully with the Departments of Justice and Education, but the Missoula County Attorney’s Office didn’t, and the community’s relationship with sexual assault remained in the headlines longer.

Jon Krakauer’s book resurrected the scandals of 2012 for a new year and a new audience, and his upcoming court battle will thrust the worst aspects of the University of Montana back into the national spotlight.

Much has been said about the University’s recent reform of the admissions department, but  faith in their ability to attract new students can only be measured when enrollment predictions are released. For now, Main Hall is in a holding pattern.

Administrators have failed in previous scandal years to promote the progress the University has made, and with so many cabinet-level positions turning over before the next academic year -- the provost, vice presidents of integrated communications and student affairs, and alumni director -- it remains to be seen how UM’s leaders will handle this latest potential obstacle to stable enrollment, whomever they may be.

Whether this year’s budget projections will take into account Krakauer’s untimely Supreme Court trial is unknown, despite trends that suggest UM should take heed. That the trial begins on Bozeman’s campus could spare Missoula some embarrassment. Reid sees it similarly.

“Maybe by having this court case at MSU their enrollment is going to go down instead.”

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