Carroll College campus

Students cross the Carroll College campus in this IR file photo. Total enrollment at Carroll decreased from 1,373 in 2016, to 1,354 in 2017, to 1,353 in 2018.

As undergraduate enrollment declines nationwide, Carroll College has been unable to avoid the inevitable.

Carroll College's freshman enrollment declined from 374 in 2016, to 326 in 2017, to 297 in 2018. These numbers include transfers to the college, who are classified "other first-year" students. Not counting those transfers, freshman enrollment came out to 254 in 2018.

Total enrollment at Carroll decreased from 1,373 in 2016, to 1,354 in 2017, to 1,353 in 2018. This was despite Carroll College's projection that total enrollment would grow by roughly 95 full-time students this year, according to public relations director Sarah Lawlor. 

The enrollment decline has led to a budget deficit at the college, according to President John Cech.

However, Lawlor remains optimistic that the college can make up for the shortfall in the spring via better-than-projected retention and transfers.

While freshman and overall enrollment declines slightly each year, the college is seeing growth in other areas. International and dual-enrollment numbers have increased over the past year. Additionally, transfer enrollment is up by 34 percent from last year, Cech said.

When asked if there were concerns over the decline in freshman enrollment, Cech said, “Frankly, every college in the country is concerned about freshman enrollment.”

Carroll’s solution is to focus on its value proposition. The college boasts the highest graduation and retention rates of any college in Montana. The college has also ranked as the No. 1 regional college in the West by U.S. News and World Report eight years running.

The college is diversifying by launching a graduate program and a masters in accounting, with three more programs in development. It is also working toward development of an adult learner task force.

Currently, the college has two task forces reviewing and reporting on every degree program it offers. These “program planning and prioritization” teams will examine how each program at the college meets the needs of Carroll’s area of impact. Cech said the teams are asking questions like “how does this relate to our mission,” “should we give this more resources” and “is there more we should be doing?”

These teams will make full reports on all programs and Cech will recommend which programs should be re-energized, realigned and cut. Lawlor said recommendations to the board of trustees will be made in late February. 

“This will result in some budget adjustment, but will also allow for growth in other areas,” Cech said.

He indicated that if a program isn’t meeting the needs of the community — for example, if enrollment and interest are down — then that program could face significant cuts. However, it’s too early to tell what programs might face cuts.

“This is all in an effort to maintain the long-term viability of the college,” Lawlor said.

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Cech believes the college’s plan for diversification is the key to success in the future. However, he said it’s important that the college “not lose what makes Carroll what it is.”

Acknowledging the decline in traditional students, Cech said adult learners, transfers and graduate students are where Carroll can grow its student body.

Nationwide, 2018 marked the sixth straight year that undergraduate enrollment has declined.

There are many theories as to why enrollment for traditional students is on the decline in the United States. Experts in articles from NPR and Forbes suggest the job market is luring students away from postsecondary education. Another suggests that the bachelor’s degree has become so commonplace that it has lost some of its value.

There are things that Kevin McRae, deputy commissioner of human resources for the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, said his organization has noticed.

"We know that in Montana we are experiencing a combination of shrinking high school graduating class sizes and the effects of a full-employment economy in the post-recession recovery," McRae said. 

This doesn't necessarily spell doom for colleges and universities. McRae said that despite the enrollment fluctuations, many employers are still looking to the state's colleges and universities to provide communities with a talented workforce. 

However, projections released last April from the federal government’s National Center for Education Statistics show Montana and many surrounding states may see this reverse by 2026. Montana is projected to have 5 percent higher enrollment in 2026 than it did in 2014.

Despite the current concerns at Carroll, Cech remains optimistic about the college’s future in the community. His goal is to get the school’s enrollment to 1,600.

“It’s a great number to address opportunities for projects and college programs,” he said.

Cech believes the number is achievable through planning and viable growth that won’t negatively impact the college’s student population.

Administrators at the 109-year-old Roman Catholic college believe the school “has a strong foundation and is well-positioned moving forward.”

A statement released by Lawlor said, “We are looking forward to educating students for at least another 110 years.”

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