Perhaps UM’s enrollment decline would hurt less if Montana State University weren’t breaking records year after year a mere three hours away.

While the schools don’t like to call themselves competitors, UM and MSU fight for the same Montana high schoolers. These students will eventually comprise the majority of their campus populations. Both universities send recruiters to every high school in the state, hoping to share the unique qualities that make their campus desirable.

Lately, MSU has been winning this fight by a wide margin.

This year, MSU has 1,635 in-state freshmen, almost double what UM has. While it’s important to consider that MSU has around 6,000 more students than UM, and therefore should have more freshmen, UM’s numbers have dropped significantly.

Since 2010, UM’s resident freshman enrollment has dropped nearly 40 percent, while MSU’s has remained stable.

So why are Montana students choosing MSU over UM?

***

When asked that question, students typically reported personal reasons unrelated to UM’s enrollment decline or highly publicized rape scandals. This suggests UM’s loss of incoming freshmen doesn’t seem to be due to a tainted reputation.

Rather, it seems UM is struggling to recruit, admit and serve prospective students.

Sophia French, an MSU sophomore from Flathead, said she chose MSU because she wanted to be farther from home and closer to the ski hill. Originally accepted to UM her senior year of high school, one visit to Bozeman changed her mind. Enrollment wasn’t an issue, she said. The place just felt right.

Bozeman High senior Abby Ross said she’s always been a Bobcat fan, and both of her parents graduated from MSU. For her, the choice was obvious. Ross added that MSU’s growing enrollment has enabled it to build new dorms and academic buildings which may make it more appealing to high schoolers deciding where to study.

“I think some people hear about that and are like, ‘Oh, if MSU’s enrollment is going way up and UM’s is going down, I think I want to go to MSU,’” Ross said.

Emma Meredith came to UM from Helena for the same reasons Ross chose MSU: she was raised a Griz fan. Meredith didn’t even hear about UM’s enrollment struggles until school was about to begin. She always planned on coming to UM, and it would take a lot to sway that decision.

In Montana, there are students who grow up with a strong connection to one university over another. Those students know from an early age where they’ll end up. But then there are those who have no allegiances, and who base their decisions on the information, service and encouragement they receive from each school.

This is where UM loses.

Elaine Chandler is a senior at Bozeman High School who always thought she would choose UM if she stayed in state for college. But when the time came for her to apply to schools, she applied to MSU as well.

Within a week, Chandler received MSU’s acceptance letter, course curriculum packet and financial aid information. Chandler didn’t receive UM’s email response until much later, even though she applied there first.  

“MSU was really together and had a nice packet, and I haven’t really heard anything from UM, so that makes MSU seem more with it I guess,” Chandler said.

Tom Crady, UM’s new vice president for enrollment and student affairs, said this is a common problem driving students away. During the summer, transfer student applications were backed up two months because of UM’s outdated application processing system.

“If it takes two months to process an application, people leave,” Crady said.

To fix this, Crady said the admissions office has updated its computer software and will be going paperless. He also said more people will be hired in the evaluation office to reduce the time it takes to process applications.

Recruitment is another area where UM’s efforts pale in comparison to MSU’s. Crady said UM currently has five paid recruiters, which isn’t enough to effectively communicate with prospective students across the country, he said.

“We don’t have the staff to do it ourselves,” Crady said. “I mean, not even close.”

For 15 years, MSU has used the application-generating services of Royall & Co., a national consultant that helps MSU find and market to students across the country. They pay $1 million a year for these services.

Aside from a brief stint with an outside enrollment management firm in 2014, UM has handled recruiting completely in house. Crady, who used Royall & Co. for the past 14 years on other campuses, said the company has a non-compete clause making UM ineligible to use their services while MSU is still a client.

Instead, under Crady’s guidance, UM has decided to try working with an outside firm again. The school hired Fire Engine RED, an agency that reaches out to high school students in their sophomore year, opens new markets across the country and finds potential recruits using test scores and student interests. Crady said UM will pay $109,000 a year for their services.

Beyond marketing, UM may be losing students because of its perceived focus on the humanities.

Many students choose between MSU and UM based solely on their major, and which university offers it. UM and MSU have different offerings in the state: UM has strong liberal arts and law programs, while MSU is known for its engineering school and agriculture program. While both schools pride themselves on their specialties, UM may be suffering because it doesn’t emphasize STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) as much as MSU.

Jed Liston, director of marketing and outreach at UM, said not having an engineering program could be hurting enrollment.

“If you go back, I think the 2008 recession had a great impact on what students are sometimes picking,” Liston said. “Students are influenced by what they know, and maybe what their families are going through.”

In other words, students may be ditching the liberal arts in favor of majors that lead to higher-paying jobs. Nearly half of MSU’s enrollment growth in the past decade has been in the college of engineering.

Liston said UM likes to market itself as a STEAM school — science, technology, entrepreneurship, arts and math. It’s hard to control what students choose to study, but if UM can highlight its strengths when recruiting students, that should be enough, Liston said.

“We just have to make sure that people are not choosing another school because they don’t know about us,” Liston said.

What matters most is giving students accurate and timely information about UM so that they can decide if it’s right for them, Liston said.