There’s no doubt the University of Missouri-Columbia has been wounded by a chain of recent events.
First, graduate assistants were upset with the university about losing benefits. Then, some legislators were angry because the school had ties to Planned Parenthood.
And of course, the school came under national scrutiny when many students protested after a series of racist incidents — the aftermath of which toppled top leadership.
What’s unclear is how all that discontent will affect enrollment and student recruitment.
Barbara Rupp, Mizzou’s director of admissions, sees cause for concern.
As it stands, applications and deposits made toward tuition are down. School leaders are projecting 900 fewer incoming freshmen for fall 2016 than fall 2015, according to currently available information.
University officials are quick to add that the 900 number is just a projection based on snapshots taken throughout the school year. The number could change drastically between now and next fall, they said.
Rupp said the university had been predicting over the last few years a decline in students based on certain demographic trends, such as a shrinking pool of high school graduates.
That pattern may explain much, or even most, of Mizzou’s projected enrollment decline.
But Rupp also acknowledges that some of the projected declines are “undoubtedly part of the aftermath of last fall.”
In particular, recruiters working in the Chicago area are more frequently hearing the same concerns from prospective students, she said.
Those concerns are tied to the growing perception of Mizzou as a national symbol for strained race relations.
“Because those students are geographically removed from the campus, they don’t really have a sense of what’s going on and they are relying on what they are seeing and hearing in the media,” Rupp said. “And it’s not particularly positive.”
According to the university’s data, applications from out-of-state student have seen some of the sharpest declines. Among those students, deposits toward tuition are down 25 percent since last year.
But there are also barriers toward luring students from within Missouri, perhaps especially in rural areas.
Rupp said potential students in those areas were offering “more conservative viewpoints,” including opinions on Melissa Click, an assistant professor who gained infamy during the campus protests of last fall.
Click was caught on video trying to prevent student journalists from interacting with students celebrating the resignation of University of Missouri President Timothy M. Wolfe. Wolfe stepped down over criticism of his perceived indifference to racist incidents on campus.
Click’s actions in defense of a black cause have been interpreted by some as an example of hyper-liberalism and political correctness gone too far.
Should the university’s enrollment projections hold true, the campus is looking at a roughly $20 million loss in revenue, according to Chief Financial Officer Rhonda Gibler.
But university officials say the negative attention is only a fraction of the enrollment challenges the school is facing.
For one, a number of other schools have stepped up their recruiting efforts in Missouri and Illinois, providing more competition for Mizzou recruiters.
And more to the point, there are simply fewer students in the pipeline, as the number of high school students in Missouri, Illinois and Kansas has leveled off.
The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education studies college enrollment trends. President David Longanecker said Missouri’s high school graduating class peaked at 70,600 students during the 2009-10 school year before dropping to 64,500 by the 2013-14 school year.
The number is expected to hover somewhere around 65,000 over the next 10 years, he said.
Those projections fall in line with national trends, compiled by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Researcher Jason DeWitt reports that high school graduation should remain flat through 2026, especially in the Midwest and the Northeast.
To mitigate some of the projected enrollment losses at Mizzou, the university has beefed up the number of recruiting events it holds, made reaching out to high school counselors a higher priority and is expanding recruiting efforts in other areas, including Atlanta.
Rupp, the admissions director, said the trick would be to persuade more students than usual to visit the campus.
“Our No. 1 message to everyone is, ‘Please visit the campus,’ ” she said. “Walk around, see it for yourself. That’ll help than anything else to make an informed decision.”