Stearns anticipates uptick in UM freshman enrollment, challenges campus on future

University of Montana President Sheila Stearns, left, addresses faculty and staff on Wednesday, where she discussed efforts to drive up student enrollment and position the school to meet future challenges. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

The president of the University of Montana challenged the campus on Wednesday to engage in efforts to strengthen the school’s academic offerings through a rigorous course review and help position the school for a smaller, yet stable student body.

In her second fall presentation as UM’s interim leader, Sheila Stearns also touched on the university’s “We are Montana” theme, one intended to unite the campus behind a common call to action as it closes in on its 125th birthday, which will likely see the seating of a new president.

“UM is challenged, but we’re beautifully poised to prosper in every way,” Stearns said. “All of the pieces are coming together in a more energetic and purposeful way, so I think we are well positioned for the future.”

Stearns said UM is challenged on a number of fronts, from maintaining enrollment to managing resources with a limited budget. The school is not alone on either front, though Stearns believes it’s making the necessary changes to embark on a stronger future.

“Every university, from the richest and most elite in the country to the smallest and most fragile, is challenged with enrollment management,” said Stearns. “We know we can grow, but it needs to be with those students who are a good fit with us.”

Over each of the past several years, UM has struggled with a declining enrollment, though it has taken steps to reverse course. It hired Tom Crady, the new vice president for enrollment management and student affairs, last year and has implemented a number of new strategies intended to target prospective students at a younger age.

Stearns said early indicators suggest the efforts are paying off with enrollment stabilizing. She expects to see a modest incoming class this year, one that’s on par or slightly larger than last year’s freshman class.

The final figures are expected next month.

“It looks as if this fall we have stabilized and possibly increased our first-year students,” Stearns said. “That’s what we were hoping for after seven years in the hole. Every sign is positive in that regard.”

Still, Stearns said, the full impact of new recruiting and retention strategies may take several years to manifest. And while the dial is moving in the right direction, overall enrollment will likely drop this year, as the incoming class will be smaller than last year’s graduating class.

But Stearns said that was anticipated and, as a result, the school has taken steps to budget for an enrollment of roughly 11,400 students.

“That’s exactly what we’ve done, so we can budget conservatively and work aggressively to grow those numbers through retention and recruitment,” Stearns said. “It looks as if we’re meeting the numbers for which we budgeted.”

Stearns, who touched on a number of successes including newly tenured faculty and another record-setting year in fundraising, also challenged the campus to stay engaged in efforts to streamline the university’s academic offerings. Every program and service will be analyzed and assessed, “as it should be,” Stearns said.

Efforts to achieve change in other areas are also moving forward, including those related to the school’s strategic plan. The council behind the review has identified five areas for opportunity, and Stearns will appoint a work team to oversee each of them.

The categories include “investing in people;” “partner with place;” “reinvent the heart of the curriculum;” “foster new knowledge, creation and innovation;” and “engaging students where they are.”

“In Montana, we have over 100,000 people who have some college but no degree,” Stearns said. “How can we reach out to them with online programs and degree completion programs so their original investment is capitalized upon and completed?”

Stearns said the push for change also looks to boost the retention of current students from around 70 percent to 80 percent.

“Our efforts to engage students where they are also has to do with retention initiatives,” Stearns said. “Each and every student must succeed and achieve our high expectations, but they’ve made an investment and so have we.”

Stearns also encouraged the campus community to counter national polls that suggest a growing number of families are questioning the value of a college degree. While the reasons vary, from worries over college debt to general skepticism over good-paying jobs, the trend could challenge schools across the country if not reversed.

“We all have to stick up for higher education,” Stearns said. “That’s one of the calls to action today – let’s all make sure we’re advocates for college education, as I know all of you are.”