MSU Wild

Montana State senior Tess Silknitter organizes her notebooks and binders in the basement of the Student Union Building on Tuesday afternoon, July 28, 2020.

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The latest figures on students planning to attend Montana State University in the fall are running close to last year’s numbers, despite the coronavirus pandemic.

Student enrollment so far looks “strong,” though it’s too soon to say if it will end up above or below last year’s, Tracy Ellig, MSU vice president for communications, wrote in an email Tuesday.

MSU won’t know until after the 15th day of classes, in September, after students have paid their tuition and fees, exactly what this fall’s enrollment will be.

With 21 days to go until the start of classes, MSU has received 19,060 applications from new first-time students. That’s an increase from 18,854 on a similar date last year. However, since students usually apply to several campuses, there are always more applications than students who actually show up.

MSU received 3,339 applications from Montana students — just 38 fewer than last year. Applications from out-of-state applications increased to 15,721, or up 244.

Asked how many students had taken the next step and registered for classes, MSU provided numbers for ongoing students, leaving new students aside. As of three-and-a-half weeks before the start of classes, some 12,144 MSU students were registered for classes, 62 fewer than at a similar point last year.

Of those ongoing students, 6,993 in-state Montana students had registered, down 309 from last year. But 5,089 out-of-state students had registered, up 247 from last year.

“The bottom line is we remain cautiously optimistic about this coming academic year,” Ellig wrote. “Given the unprecedented nature of the circumstances we are in, Montana State University appears to be in a good position based on what we know today. We look forward to welcoming current and new students back to campus soon.”

Comparing this year with last year is tricky because this year MSU has moved the start of classes ahead two weeks to Aug. 17, so that students can finish classes by Thanksgiving and not have to return to campus between the holidays, which could risk greater spread of the virus.

Enrollment numbers are critical for MSU, because more than any other state campus, it depends on student tuition to fund its budget. Last year MSU received 26.4% of its revenue from state taxpayers, the lowest share of any state campus, while depending on student tuition for 72% of its revenue. Out-of-state students, who pay tuition three times higher than Montana students, paid $113.7 million in tuition, compared to $52.5 million paid by Montana students. MSU officials argue it’s a good deal for Montana students, whose education is subsidized, and for out-of-state students, who can get a good education often at less than the cost of their home-state’s tuition.

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