Cathy Cole: UM pumps time, energy, resources into better recruitment, retention 

Cathy Cole, UM vice president for enrollment and strategic communication

As forecasters predict a drop in enrollment at the University of Montana ahead of official tallies, Cathy Cole and her colleagues on campus are working like mad to bolster recruitment and retention.

In a slow-but-steady flip of the switch, UM’s vice president for enrollment and strategic communication leads several initiatives to keep students in school and make certain they know that someone at UM – and in the community – cares about them.

At UM for over a year, Cole has immersed herself and those around her in ever-widening circles to regularly touch base with students – especially freshmen – one-on-one to encourage and welcome them. 

She told a City Club Missoula gathering of about 60 on Monday that her office is “doing just about everything we can” to recruit and retain students, but that it takes time to set a new strategic plan and push it into high gear.

“I started in 2018, and I knew when I took the job that we were broken,” she said right off. “I knew there were a lot of things that just weren’t working right. We have a lot of great people who did a lot of good work, but there were fundamental issues with the infrastructure at the university, especially in enrollment management. And we just weren’t firing on all cylinders.”

Knowing UM had suffered the sting of dropping enrollment, faculty and budgets for several years, Cole and company created a strategic plan, collected consistent data, spun out ongoing market analysis to better target high recruiting areas, upped her department’s direct engagement with the community and pinpointed parents and others – all while retelling UM’s story.

“More and more students are interested in UM, move-in week was hugely successful, and students and families were happy,” she said.

Engagement levels have increased 4,000 percent, she said, since her office interviewed 300 on-campus and off-campus folks in an effort to refocus UM’s story in a positive light. 

“We have a team of very bright folks on campus collecting data and using it daily to really guide the institution 5, 10, 25 years from now. We are super excited about that,” Cole said Monday.

Those same students and families visited a lot of local businesses and restaurants in recent weeks, as downtown Missoula buzzed with the excitement of a new semester, she said.

Among the changes intended to engage incoming freshmen: Instead of offering several orientations, facilitators jam-packed a one-week orientation that:

  • Grouped students into cohorts of 25
  • Assigned service projects on campus and around the city
  • Included 40 hours of learning and service
  • Interacted with community partners
  • Helped students form bonds and attachments more likely to keep them in school

“We really wanted them to experience what they might on campus and know that we’d have that support for them,” Cole said. For example, students met with their counselors via a role-playing scenario in which they theoretically received a “significant other” break-up email – a real-life example that can upend a student’s academic focus.

“This was a great way for us to put students into their academic homes and give them a foundation right before the chaos of the first day of school. They really loved it.”

UM President Seth Bodnar

Meanwhile, Cole said 130,000 students have landed in the inquiry pool for potential admission next year.

The university offers several counselors: academic advisors, peer mentors, faculty advisors, mental health counselors, plus outreach personnel who follow a student success model. Cole calls it “a culture of caring” in the face of a complicated world in which the myriad high pressures of attending college can easily overwhelm students.

 “We have people who are trained to reach out to them,” she said. “We want every day to have every member of the faculty and staff to connect with a student in one way or another – so no one gets left behind or falls through the cracks. We will have every freshman connected in one way or another from here on out.”

Gwen Jones, a Missoula city councilwoman attending City Club, asked Cole what local government can do to help engage, recruit and retain UM students.

“We really want UM banners downtown,” said Cole, “that say ‘Welcome to Missoula and the University of Montana.’ That would be awesome.”

Making the university indistinguishable from Missoula seems a natural fit. 

“We know we go as Missoula goes,” added Cole. “We want to partner with the city as much as we can.” 

An internship initiative – UM President Seth Bodner’s Experiential Learning and Career Success program – guides students in building academic resumes and connecting with businesses. It also offers virtual training for local business owners looking for student interns. The purpose is to proactively help students build bridges to jobs before and after graduation.

Enlisting the nurturing tendencies of some of the 105,000 Montana Grizzly alumni worldwide is on Cole’s strategic radar, too. Alumni events with Big Dipper Ice Cream and Five on Black are on the schedule.

Having worked at five different universities in five different states, Cole said Missoula is the best working partner relationship she’s encountered.

Cole’s team has pumped up previously non-existent recruiting fliers and personable letters to prospective students. One goal is to land at least two fliers a month on kitchen tables. Several new publications, consistent emails to students and parents and texts to students are among the other communication tools seeing the light of day now.

Leslie Wetherbee, parent of a UM student who has been in and out of school and a City Club attendee, praised the university for improving informational packets and mailers to students and parents within the past year.

The university now frequently contacts Wetherbee’s son, who re-enrolled after receiving touch-base postcards as a check-in system. 

Another business leader said UM has noticeably improved its online presence, as well. 

Coffee events with Bodner and bus tours are other ways UM turned up the awareness dial for better recruitment at the state’s flagship liberal arts university.

Furthermore, Bodner and other UM administrators plan trips to China and Japan to recruit international students – a priority, said Cole.

Bottom line: Cole is bent on re-engaging the community with projects of all sizes associated with the university – and to eventually boost enrollment and rebuild UM’s reputation.

“We want to make sure our students are ready for the next economy that comes – and we can only do that with the community,” she said. 

A first-generation college graduate who made it through school thanks to Pell grants, Cole said, “Lots of people gave me a hand up along the way and I want to be able to do the same along my journey.”

She asked others to spread the word about UM to help strengthen its story.

When official enrollment numbers come out soon – following the Montana Board of Regents meeting in Butte this week – it remains to be seen how Cole’s new inclusive strategy will unfold. 

Enrollment was 9,407 during spring semester 2018, compared to 9,247 full-time undergraduate students in spring 2019. Overall, enrollment has decreased 33.5 percent since 2011 – precisely the problem Cole and staff seek to overcome in the long term. 

“We’re working really hard to turn it around,” she added. “We are making a difference in the lives of every student right now.”