The great recession of 2008 boosted college enrollments around the nation, but now that the economy is turning around, Montana State University officials expect the Bozeman campus to keep growing and attracting record numbers of students.

“I feel confident,” President Waded Cruzado said Wednesday, that MSU will meet the goals in its new strategic plan, which calls for enrollment to grow 15 percent from the current record of 14,660 students to 16,000 over the next six years.

“It is not because we’re being hostage to economic cycles,” Cruzado said. “It’s because we’re attracting … students interested in our programs and the quality of our faculty and staff.”

Cruzado spoke after a University Council meeting, where about three dozen campus leaders heard a report that MSU is making progress toward meeting the strategic plan’s goals of increasing access to higher education for more students and a greater diversity of students.

John Neumeier, Faculty Senate chair, asked whether, as enrollment increases, MSU has enough classroom space to hold all the students.

“We do have enough space,” replied Bob Lashaway, associate vice president of university services. What will change, he said, is “the length of the classroom day.”

MSU expects to gain 11 new classrooms when the new College of Business building is constructed, which will be a huge help, Lashaway added.

Where to house additional students has also been a challenge. Construction of the new $7 million North Hedges Suite No. 3 is underway next to the SOB Barn. It will add 70 dorm rooms, said Jim Rimpau, vice president for student success. In addition, the Atkinson “Quads” building F will be renovated to add 20 more dorm rooms for honors students.

Rimpau, whose office is in charge of recruiting students and tracking application numbers, said “we feel pretty confident” enrollment will keep growing.

“We’re not just recruiting more freshmen,” he said. That would be a hard way to increase enrollment, when Montana’s high school population is on a downward trend. At the University of Montana, enrollment dropped this year.

MSU’s strategic plan calls for recruiting more graduate students, more Native American, international and minority students. And MSU is encouraging students who dropped out in the past to “return to learn,” Rimpau said.

“We’re sort of superstitious about counting our chickens before they hatch,” Rimpau said. But so far this spring, “our applications look good, look strong. If I had to say, they’re probably right at or a little above last year’s numbers.”

Chris Fastnow, interim director of planning and analysis, reported that student numbers are increasing in nearly every category outlined in the strategic plan — Montana residents, transfer students, Gallatin College students, Indian students, other minorities, international and students over traditional age.

The big exception was among graduate students. Their numbers have shrunk since the fall of 2010 by nearly 100, to 1,888 this year. MSU’s goal is 2,350 grad students. Its plan calls for improving financial assistance to attract more grad students.

Financial need is the other area where the numbers aren’t improving. MSU was able to meet 74 percent of students’ financial needs in 2010, but this year that dropped to 72 percent. The goal is 80 percent.

Cruzado said she plans to have monthly updates on progress toward the strategic plan’s goals, so it doesn’t become a document that just sits on a shelf.

“Thanks for all you do,” Cruzado told council members, to create “an even better and stronger MSU.”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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