MSU’s Dangerous Focus on Enrollment Growth

Last week MSU started the new school year by welcoming what will likely be the largest freshman class in university history, the class of 2018.

Though the official enrollment count won’t be released until later this month, this year’s class is very likely to exceed last year’s record-breaking freshman class of 2,921 students, up from 2,710 the year before. Total enrollment is also expected to rise from last year’s 15,294 students, which was the seventh time in eight years MSU set an enrollment record. In total, in the four years since 2009, MSU saw a 19.8 percent jump in enrollment.

Campus officials have applauded this feat and have cited that it is in accord with MSU’s Strategic Plan. Unveiled in 2012, the plan sets overarching goals for the university including calling for student enrollment to hit 16,000 students by 2019.

Of course, MSU’s Strategic Plan encompasses more than just enrollment growth. It also focuses on categorical objectives such as stewardship, engagement, integration, discovery and learning. However, enrollment growth is perhaps the most evident example of how the university has changed quickly.

This week’s feature article (pgs. 8-9) takes an in-depth look at MSU’s growth and the areas it has affected.

Though school officials seem confident in the growth, there undoubtedly remains a high level of skepticism on campus on how the rapid and continuous growth will affect MSU. And there should be.

To be clear: growth in itself is inevitable, and it is as impractical as it is naive to argue MSU should not grow. But even if one looks past the inherent lack of existing infrastructure to support such growth —  like the lack of parking availability, crowded classrooms and the housing crunch on and off campus — there lies a deep problem in how MSU has chosen to brand itself off this growth.

By focusing and priding ourselves on being “Montana’s largest and fastest-growing university” — as it proudly states on the newly-redesigned MSU website and President Cruzado boasted at last week’s Freshman Convocation — we are playing a potentially dangerous game with our future.

Beyond the Strategic Plan’s existence, there really hasn’t been an engaging and full conversation on campus about the merits of such rapid growth, especially in regard to why larger enrollment numbers necessarily equal a better university. Students do not attend an institution to be one of many, and faculty and staff don’t work to support a number.

Additionally, the University of Montana sets a poignant example of how quickly the winds of fate can change for a university. In 2011, UM set an enrollment record of its own at 15,669 students. The next year, UM’s enrollment suddenly dropped by more than 700 students, and has continued to drop for the past six semesters. This decreased enrollment, along with other factors, has lead to massive budget cuts at the university, estimated to be as much as 8 percent of the general budget.

Addressing the housing shortage, MSU officials have stated that the increased enrollment will not necessarily come from a ever-growing freshman class, but instead will come from increased retention and non-traditional students. But if we continue to put such pressure on reaching an arbitrary enrollment number by a certain time, we face the constant risk dropping admission standards, lower graduations requirements and overall compromising our education. Because when push comes to shove, we’ll meet that number one way or another.

So instead of branding ourselves based on our growth, let’s focus on other goals. Let’s pride ourselves on delivering the best education in the state, or having the most diverse graduates, or, better yet, the most successful graduates.