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University Of Montana Expecting Continued Enrollment Decline

The Montana Supreme Court has selected Sheila Stearns to lead Montana Redistricting Commission.
Courtesy the University of Montana

University of Montana President Sheila Stearns presented her mid-year update to faculty and staff today. The address to the standing-room-only crowd of about 300 was peppered with optimistic messages that the university’s best days are ahead of it.

But it also contained a sobering reality check.

Student enrollment numbers at the University of Montana are not improving. During her State of the University presentation, President Sheila Stearns said UM is now budgeting for a Fall 2017 enrollment of roughly 11,000 students. Stearns describes that estimate as a 'cautious assumption'

"And you’re thinking, 'What?! She wants us to plan toward about 11,000 students?' I don’t want us to aspire to 11,000 students, but I think it’s wise," says Stearns. "I will insist the budget committee and the planning committee and the implementation committee to work together almost every Thursday afternoon to enable us to plan in a very real and practical way."

Enrollment has steadily declined since 2011’s record of over 15,000 students. The fall headcount this past October was over 12,000. UM’s declining enrollment trend is expected to linger for several years.

In education, enrollment is everything. It determines budgets and staffing levels. Faculty and staff compensation currently accounts for most of UM’s budget — about 80 percent.

"We need to bring it down into the low 70’s," Stearns says. "We can do that. We can do that intentionally and respectfully. This is not sustainable."

To fix the problem, Stearns says UM needs to make data-driven decisions based on the best available assumptions.

"Right now I think there’s some data distrust on our campus," says Stearns. "That’s why I want to invigorate the budget committee and connect it to the strategic planning committee so that we can ensure that the goals we set for our class size ratios and the numbers of employees and the percentage of our budget that’s personnel, get adjusted in a wise way."

Stearns urged the campus to think hard about how to raise UM’s retention of freshman to sophomore students from the current 70 percent to 80 percent or higher. An 80 percent retention rate is an incredibly ambitious goal.

"That will take a few more years of investment and really focused effort on students. In the meantime, let’s get 70 (percent retention) up to 71 percent and 72 percent with intentional, joyful practices with our students," Stearns says.

Stearns assumed the role of UM’s interim president after thedeparture of Royce Engstrom. She reiterated that she is not interested in taking the job on a permanent basis. A search committee to find Engstrom’s permanent replacement is still being formed.

Stearns says she’s prepared to stay for however long it takes to make that hire.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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