State officials clamp down on UM enrollment messaging

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As enrollment drops continue to squeeze budgets at some Montana universities, and particularly at the University of Montana, state officials are exerting new control over how the information is released to the public.

Citing “credibility” concerns, representatives with the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education this summer directed UM officials and other campus leaders to rebuff requests for fall enrollment estimates, emails provided to the Indy show. Instead, OCHE arranged to provide a snapshot before the Board of Regents on Sept. 14. The presentation was to be the first public glimpse of UM’s budget outlook for the current year, but rather than provide campus-by-campus estimates, regents were told only that the university system as a whole is roughly on track. UM budgeted for a 6.6 percent enrollment drop (in total student full-time equivalents) from last year.

The change underscores the sensitive nature of enrollment figures and helps explain why UM officials have refused to offer even the slightest hint of whether fall 2016 numbers are on target.

The Missoulian reported on UM’s tight-lipped approach on Aug. 12, prompting a note of encouragement from OCHE Deputy Commissioner Kevin McRae to Engstrom and other university presidents.

“Good work here, team,” McRae emailed. “I can remember times when campuses that had increasing enrollment were hyper with their August press releases over merely projected enrollment numbers, while campuses that had declining enrollment barely uttered a public peep about enrollment before (or even after) the November [Board of Regents] enrollment report. It seems to me we have shifted toward more of an even keel in our approach.”

A year ago, UM issued a press release in September stating preliminary enrollment figures were in line with budgeted levels. The final figures were posted quietly online a couple weeks later, showing a much more severe drop that ultimately prompted millions of dollars of midyear budget cuts.
The University of Montana budgeted for another overall enrollment drop of 6.6 percent this year. Upon the directive of state officials, UM leadership has been mum on whether actual student count is on track with budget targets before the official fall count on the 15th day of classes. - P­HOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • p­hoto by Cathrine L. Walters
  • The University of Montana budgeted for another overall enrollment drop of 6.6 percent this year. Upon the directive of state officials, UM leadership has been mum on whether actual student count is on track with budget targets before the official fall count on the 15th day of classes.
McRae, while not citing UM’s situation specifically, says the "sport" of enrollment estimation can hurt the system’s credibility when they prove inaccurate.

“That’s why it makes no sense for having various iterations of enrollment estimates before we can actually count students,” he says.

Yet Wednesday’s regents presentation was based on similarly preliminary data. McRae says the coordinated release was organized due to public interest and for regents' use in planning and decision-making. The OCHE directive was not intended to “put a chill effect” on university officials from discussing enrollment estimates as they relate to the budget, he adds.

No formal state policy prohibits universities from providing budget and enrollment estimates at any time.

UM officials, however, remained mute in recent months on all aspects of enrollment, including housing registration numbers and anticipated budgetary implications. The university’s approach this year was undertaken in accordance with the MUS directive, Communications Director Paula Short tells the Indy.

Montana State University interpreted the directive differently. A few days after McRae reminded campus officials not to engage in enrollment speculation, MSU President Waded Cruzado was quoted as predicting another year of record-high enrollment. Then, at the school’s convocation ceremony, she touted that MSU’s incoming freshman class would also be the largest ever, predicting it would exceed 3,400 students.

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