MSU Wild

Students walk down South 11th Avenue after class on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020.

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Montana State University enrollment dipped slightly in the face of a pandemic and concerns over in-person learning but remained one of the highest it’s ever recorded.

Fall enrollment was reported at 16,249 students, a 3% decline compared with fall of last year, according to the university.

The headcount, based on the number of students on the 15th day of class, is still the fifth highest enrollment for the university. The count includes students taking classes in person, remotely or a combination of the two.

The record enrollment was set in 2018 at 16,902 students.

“I am humbled that so many students have chosen to pursue their dreams at Montana State, despite the uncertainty of the pandemic. They ought to be commended for the clarity of their goals and their sense of persistence,” MSU President Waded Cruzado said in the university’s news release.

Michael Becker, spokesman for the university, said enrollment could increase in the next three weeks, with high school students in the area signing up for dual enrollment classes.

“Our enrollment this fall is remarkable given some of the dire predictions that were being made about American higher education in the spring and compared to the rest of the state,” Becker said in an email to the Chronicle.

Becker said MSU predicted no new budget changes but has remained in a hiring freeze since the spring.

“Changes in enrollment have an impact over more than one year, so we will continue to be conservative in our approach,” he said.

The university also reported its retention rate — the percentage of first-year students who return for a second year — hit a 30-year record with just over 78%.

MSU’s four-year graduation rate also climbed 5% to 34.7%. Cruzado said it was “amazing” that one in three MSU students were graduating within four years.

“MSU’s success is truly a credit to MSU’s faculty and staff who have worked extraordinarily hard to make MSU a safe and welcoming campus this fall and continue to do so as we make our way through the fall,” she said.

The university also made progress in one of its goals: increasing the number of its graduate students. The number attending MSU this fall increased by 3% to 2,009.

Student enrollment from under-represented groups increased too, according to the university. The number of Asian and Hispanic students both increased 6% to 641 and 809, respectively; the number of American Indian/Alaska Native students increased 5% to 755 students. The number of African American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students remained steady.

Concerns over enrollment are a larger trend in the state and country. About 67% of schools nationwide predicted enrollment would decline with lower tuition revenue expected, according to an August poll by the National Association of College and University Business Officers.

Earlier in the summer, MSU predicted a decline in enrollment of almost 10% for fiscal year 2021, according to Tyler Trevor, deputy commissioner for budget and planning with the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education.

“Not knowing what the year would look like, they went conservative with their nonresident undergrad estimates,” Trevor said. “They’re not having the troubles they budgeted for.”

MSU, which relies heavily on non-resident tuition, projected its out-of-state-enrollment could decrease by 11.8%. As of its recent headcount, it had declined by only 1.5%.

Trevor said it’s possible the situation could swing worse with the university having fewer students in the spring, but right now MSU is in a strong position.

“They don’t have to cut it quite so close to the margin because they have financial strength,” he said.

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Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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