BILLINGS — Enrollment at Rocky Mountain College is down six percent from one year ago, one of the steepest year-to-year drops in the school's history.
"We’ve had several years of somewhat flat or increasing enrollment, but this is acute. This just happened," said President of RMC, Bob Wilmouth.
It's something that's an issue across the country according to Wilmouth.
"There’s a trend that enrollment is down in higher ed across the country, that it’s not as valued, but we have to worry about ourselves," added Wilmouth.
Nationwide, undergraduate college enrollment dropped eight percent from 2019-2022, with declines even after returning to in-person classes, post pandemic. According to the U.S Bureau of Labor statistics, it's the steepest slide on record.
MSU in Bozeman set an all-time record this fall at 16,978 students, however. That’s up two percent from last year. MSU’s enrollment is now close to double that of its rival in the University of Montana. UM’s numbers for 2023 aren’t out yet. But the school reported 9,955 student’s last fall.
So, why are some schools seeing a surge of students while others are struggling?
Rocky's Vice President of Enrollment, Austin Mapston say's it's difficult to pinpoint.
"There’s a national discourse on the value of education. You look at soaring student debt conversations, those challenges and the current economic climate where increased wages in certain industries or certain wages are very attractive for students coming right out of high school. The wages are attractive at 18,19, or 20 dollars an hour, versus coming in and starting preparation and training for long-term careers," said Mapston.
Cost is certainly a factor.
Tuition at Rocky currently sits at $32,282 per year. The board of regents also recently approved tuition increases of four percent for in-state students and six percent for out-of-state over the next two years at Montana public universities.
It's a problem with no simple fix, but one that the administration at Rocky and other universities will be focused on in the coming year.
"When this happens, I think the most important thing is you have to look in the mirror and examine what you’re doing. We’re really well positioned after having four years of growth, to look at our processes and keep in mind that this is about continuous improvement," Wilmouth said.
"Long-term the institution hopes to reach 1,000 full-time undergrad students and 200 grad students for a total enrollment of 1,200. So, that’s our long-term strategic plan. That’s what we’re continually working towards," Mapston added.