The reputation of the University of Missouri-Columbia has taken a hit in the aftermath of student-led protests and accusations of racial insensitivity that roiled the campus in 2015.
But this week, MU saw glimmers of hope.
The campus reports that 86.6 percent of last year’s freshmen returned to classes this week, the second-highest retention rate in the history of the university. The fear, bolstered by preliminary enrollment data, was that they would not come back this fall.
This year’s freshman class is more than 4,100 students. That’s about 700 fewer than last year but higher than grim early estimates. The overall enrollment stands at more than 30,000 students.
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And Mizzou has weathered a deluge of undesirable publicity, much of it earned. Campus leadership was slow to react appropriately when tensions boiled almost two years ago, leading to the resignations of the university system president and the campus chancellor.
Cuts to the university’s budget by the legislature have exacerbated Mizzou’s struggles, resulting in a reduction in professors and other personnel.
In July, a New York Times headline proclaimed: “Long After Protests, Students Shun the University of Missouri.” The article highlighted early enrollment figures, which were down by more than 35 percent in the last two years.
The piece quoted the new system president, Mun Choi, noting that the feeling then was that students from both within Missouri and out of state were hesitant about being Tigers.
But newly released freshman retention data suggest that the university may have endured the worst of this storm. And the University of Missouri’s announcement that beginning next year, the school will pay tuition and fees for all students who qualify for federal Pell Grants is a commendable step that could also help boost enrollment.
For now, this year’s numbers are still in flux. Enrollment data are fluid in the first few weeks of school as students settle in. Final enrollment figures aren’t recorded until the fourth week of classes, but this week’s indicators are stronger than expected.
Many factors affect why students choose a particular university, including cost, proximity to family and their chosen majors. But the campus atmosphere and students’ comfort level with the university community are crucial during these first weeks of the school year.
To keep moving in the right direction, Mizzou must telegraph that the campus embraces diversity and will be responsive to the concerns of all students. Anything less could unravel early signs of progress.