Enrollment declines at University of Missouri, but not as much as expected

University of Missouri columns
University of Missouri columns

The official numbers are in and as projected, enrollment at the University of Missouri is down this year but not as much as initially estimated when classes began this fall.

Enrollment on the Columbia campus for the 2016-2017 academic year is 33,266. That’s down 2,182 from last year, a 6.2 percent drop.

Enrollment is the lowest it’s been since 2010.

In addition, the 2016 freshman class of 4,772 students is down 22.9 percent from a year ago.

When classes began in August, university officials projected enrollment would drop by nearly 3,000 students and said it could result in a $30 million drop in revenue.

A news release Thursday on the school’s official census for the year showed the university actually gained 489 students since the first day of classes.

“We’re excited to see that since opening day, almost 500 additional students have chosen Mizzou as their home,” Interim Chancellor Hank Foley said in the release.

University officials also boasted that MU’s retention rate — a measure of how many freshman students came back to campus as sophomores — climbed to 85.7 percent, the third-highest in history.

“It shows that we remain a strong choice for students who want to be part of MU’s storied history and bright future,” said Pelema Morrice, vice provost for enrollment management.

The university also noted that the hundreds of students added since opening day included an increase of 92 minority students. And of those students, 58 were African-American.

Still, the African-American student population on the MU campus is down by 242 from last year, to 2,302.

That represents 6.9 percent of the student body. Last year, African-American students made up 7.2 percent of the students on the campus.

For months, university officials have blamed the expected enrollment decline in part on a demographic shift that has led to fewer high school students, thus shrinking the pool of potential college students to pick from. And, to a lesser degree, the racially charged protests that erupted on the Columbia campus last year put MU under a national spotlight for a lack of diversity, equity and inclusion of minority students.

National education officials confirm the demographic shift in high school seniors but said the problem isn’t expected to peak until 2022 or 2023.

When it hits, Missouri in particular is expected to see among the highest level of reduction, “5 percent or more, fewer students graduating in 2023 than in 2010,” said Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

One factor might soften those potential losses: Since MU is a flagship institution in a state that has managed to keep annual tuition hikes down, Nassirian speculates that it should do well in attracting Missouri residents to its campus.

But, he said, “there is no question that an institution’s reputation has enormous impact in the decision of a student or a student’s family in encouraging or discouraging a particular choice.”

Turmoil on a campus could make students and family “do a double take,” Nassirian said, when looking for a suitable school. “Being on the evening news for turmoil is definitely not a selling point.”

MU was not the only area university to experience an enrollment decline.

At the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, enrollment is down this year from 14,395 to 13,988 with fewer freshman enrolling. Central Missouri had 1,658 students in its 2015 freshman class, and 1,605 enrolled this fall.

And at Kansas State University — including satellite campuses — enrollment is 23,779, down from 24,146 last year. There was little growth in this year’s freshman class over last year.

“Our domestic freshman enrollment is almost flat from last year,” said Pat Bosco, vice president for student life and dean of students. “While that is good news for K-State this year, it is also alarming as we are seeing fewer Kansas high school students going on to any kind of post-secondary education. We are also down in international students, both new and returning, and some current students are not returning because of cost.”

Some other area schools saw enrollment growth.

At the University of Missouri-Kansas City, enrollment is up 1.47 percent from 16,699 students last year to 16,944 this year. UMKC saw a 15.6 percent increase in the size of this year’s freshman class over last fall’s. Of those 1,213 new students, 494 are members of a minority group. Campuswide, the African-American population grew from 11 percent to 11.2 percent.

At the University of Kansas, the freshman class has grown for the fifth straight year, in record-breaking fashion.

The 2016 freshman class includes 4,233 new students on the Lawrence campus, an increase of 1.1 percent from last year. This is the fourth-largest class in KU history and the largest since 2008. And overall, the university’s enrollment has grown for the third straight year to 28,401, an increase of 1.1 percent.

Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little praised KU for gains in minority enrollment. The number of minority students overall grew 3.9 percent. Minority students are 19.8 percent of KU’s enrollment, the highest percentage in history. African-American student enrollment grew 5 percent over last year, from 976 students to 1,025 students this fall.

“A diverse student body is crucial to the campus environment at KU,” Gray-Little said.

It’s a sentiment that University of Missouri leaders at the system and campus level have been pushing since last year’s protests.

MU officials said they are working now on improving race relations on their campus and will broaden recruitment efforts to create a more diverse student body.

Foley said last month that MU is focused on “rebuilding enrollment, restoring reputation … and marketing Mizzou much more than ever before in the past.”

The Star’s Ian Cummings contributed to this story.