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Montana Universities Report Dip In Fall Enrollment

McMullen Hall at Montana State University-Billings
University Relations, MSU-Billings
Yellowstone Public Radio
McMullen Hall at Montana State University Billings

Editor’s note 9/16: This article has been edited to include MSUB Interim Chancellor Rolf Groseth’s response to the question of how many students are positive on campus and edited to reflect that it was unclear Tuesday if the administration was aware or unaware of the existence of positive cases.

Montana State University-Billings on Tuesday announced a drop in fall enrollment due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

MSUB says it saw a decrease of just over nine percent in total enrollment from last fall.

That’s within the five to 20 percent drop the education industry predicted due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to Interim Chancellor Rolf Groseth.

“In some ways, we’re on the low end of that, so that’s good. We’ve made some projections and certainly a drop in enrollment will impact our finances, but we did foresee a drop in enrollment, so it’s not so impactful as it might have been," Groseth said.

Groseth says MSUB will probably need to make cuts for this and future fiscal years. Longterm, MSUB will examine whether it should continue programs or classes that draw less student interest. He says the legislature, the Board of Regents’ budgeting decisions and student retention will inform that process.

The number of part time students remains roughly the same as last year at 46 percent of the student body and first year retention has slightly increased. But MSUB says the number of high school students taking college classes decreased. University administrators say that may be due to an earlier university start date and conflict with local high school schedules.

MSUB opened its campus to students last month and maintains COVID-19 safety protocol, including requiring social distancing and masks.

YPR asked Groseth how many students and staff are currently ill.

"I don’t think we know that," he said. "I think we anticipate that some students are, but we are in a partnership with RiverStone Health, and communication, we have all agreed, will come from them on the status of our students, and I think they’ll just be amalgamated into the county.”

Groseth says RiverStone Health, Yellowstone County’s health department, is in charge of gathering and reporting that information.

MSUB says RiverStone wouldn’t inform MSUB about positive cases on campus due to privacy concerns, adding the university is working on a plan.

Montana State University in Bozeman is reporting lower total fall enrollment numbers than last year but 2020 still ranks the fifth highest in the institution’s 127-year history.

MSU President Waded Cruzado called the numbers “stunningly strong” in the face of uncertainty caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Seventy-eight percent of first year students are returning for a second year, a 30-year record. Veteran, underrepresented racial groups and summer enrollment were also up.

MSU is offering courses in person, remotely or a hybrid of the two this year.

Kayla writes about energy policy, the oil and gas industry and new electricity developments.