Norm Asbjornson Hall

A lecture hall at Norm Asbjornson Hall is empty and locked up April 30 at Montana State University.

Ryan Berry/Chronicle | Bozeman Daily Chronicle

Montana’s colleges and universities are bracing for enrollment drops this fall that could be as bad as 15% at some campuses, according to the University System’s planning expert.

That’s why more financial help is needed from the federal government, Tyler Trevor, deputy commissioner of higher education for budget and planning, told the state Board of Regents this week.

A lot is still unknown about the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic and outlook for the fall semester, said Clay Christian, commissioner of higher education.

That uncertainty is reflected in national surveys that have reported that one college student of out six is worried about the fall semester and may not return, Trevor said.

“Somewhere between 10% and 20% may be in flux whether they’re going to return this fall,” Trevor said Wednesday during the regents’ online meeting.

Each campus is working on models on a daily basis, forecasting how an enrollment drop would affect everything from the overall budget to deficits for dorms and dining halls, athletics, campus events and more.

The Montana University System has already received $26 million from the CARES Act passed by Congress. Half of that or $13 million was required to be spent on emergency relief for students.

“We refunded close to $12 million in room and board this spring,” Trevor said. “That eats up a lot of the first tranche of funds.”

University officials are talking with Gov. Steve Bullock’s office about possibly getting a share of the relief funds the governor’s office has. But any additional relief money would have to come from the federal government.

The Heroes Act passed by the Democrats in the House last week would include more than $30 billion for higher education and allow using the funds to “backfill” holes in college budgets, Christian said. But the bill has not been embraced by Republicans in the Senate, who want to see how well the first relief bills bolster the economy.

The first relief bills from Congress focused on relief for individual students, Christian said. “We also need help to stabilize institutions.”

Christian said he’s been talking with Montana’s senators about the need for more relief funds.

“They’re incredibly important in terms of stabilizing our picture,” he said.

On the plus side, Christian pointed out that East and West coast colleges have been harder hit by the virus, while Montana, thanks to wise decisions, “is in a really good place right now.”

Bullock told the regents his office and the commissioner’s took “aggressive action” to close schools before states like New York, which has resulted in some of the lowest hospitalization rates in the nation and lowest per-person rates of virus cases.

Trevor said when he asks Montana campuses how they’re doing on enrollment, some say it’s too early to tell. Some say it’s looking similar to the past, and some are showing declines.

Asked how enrollment looks for Montana State University in Bozeman, Trevor said Friday that he’d put MSU in the “holding steady” category, though “they’d probably say it’s dropping.”

“MSU is doing better than most,” said Trevor, adding he hesitates to give out numbers because they change daily.

MSU spokesman Tracy Ellig declined to release any numbers, writing, “We’ve never provided admission numbers on fall enrollment applications.” He referred questions to the commissioner’s office in Helena.

The annual spring enrollment report for the Montana system’s past year shows a steady drop since 2012, from the equivalent of more than 40,800 full-time students to 35,225 this year. MSU has been the exception, seeing a dramatic enrollment increase since 2012.

Inside Higher Education reported in late April that one in six U.S. students who’d planned to attend four-year colleges full time no longer plan to do so, according to private polling. And about 12% of students polled who have already made deposits no longer planned to attend a four-year college full time, according to polling by the consulting firm Art & Science Group.

The regents also voted 7-0 to ask to the governor to include more than $22 million in the next two-year state budget to help cover the rising costs of personnel, health insurance, buildings and other inflationary costs. Trevor said much of that is needed just to pay people the raises they received in the past two years.

Brock Tessman, deputy commissioner, said the Healthy Fall 2020 Task Force is working on guidelines for campuses on how to safely reopen next fall, which should be ready in two weeks.

“Our campuses will be ready to welcome our students back,” Tessman said.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.