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Fall enrollment figures suggest that hard times make for boon times at Missouri colleges

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 26, 2009 - In spite of sluggish economic conditions -- or perhaps because of them -- many colleges in Missouri are reporting slight increases in enrollment this fall.

Robert B. Stein, commissioner of higher education for Missouri, said in a statement that the higher enrollment in Missouri's colleges was the "silver lining in the cloud overshadowing the economy."

"Enrollment in some community colleges this summer was up 20 to 30 percent," he said. "This week, the University of Missouri reported the highest enrollment in the history of the university. The state's community colleges are also bursting at the seams."

He said the demand for college was growing so rapidly that the state had to cut the Access Missouri scholarship funds because more students than ever before had applied for the money.

Here is a brief survey of enrollment trends. It is not meant to be comprehensive. University officials stress that these numbers are estimates; firm numbers are generally not available until about a month into the school year.

University of Missouri - St. Louis

The most noticeable upward trend is at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, where officials reported a 20 percent increase in first-time enrollees -- a rise to 565 students this year, compared to 470 last fall.

"That's a huge increase for us," says Greg McCalley, vice provost for student affairs at UMSL. "A lot of students who had thought of going away to school thought again because of the economy and decided to stay here. We're their choice. We're pretty happy with the way things are looking for us."

The university decided to add additional classes instead of making the classes larger to accommodate the additional students, adds McCalley.

University of Missouri - Columbia

The numbers weren't up everywhere. At the University of Missouri's main campus in Columbia, first-time enrollment dipped slightly -- from 5,812 in 2008 to 5,620 this fall, says Kim Hull, business manager for the university's division of enrollment.

Even with the slight drop in enrollment, Hull says that the flagship campus has achieved a number of firsts.

  • highest total enrollment, thanks largely to a higher retention rate (the percentage of students enrolled last fall who returned this fall). Hull says the rate is 85.4 percent. "It continues to rise every year," she says. "Hopefully, we're making them happy, which is good. You want to keep them, encourage them to stay in school because they will be successful in life if they stay."
  • highest undergraduate enrollment -- 23,659 -- as well as the second highest first-time college enrollment. The record first-time college enrollment of 5,812 in 2008 may have been an anomaly, says Hull. Nobody has been able to explain the sudden jump for that year, she adds.
  • highest first-time African American student enrollment (484, up 62 from last fall), with total African American student enrollment rising to 1,819.
  • highest first-time Hispanic student enrollment (152, up 21 from last fall), with total Hispanic enrollment reaching 635. Hull suggested that the increases in enrollments of blacks and Hispanics were due partly to stronger recruitment initiatives.
  • highest average ACT score -- 25.6 -- in eight years for the freshman class. ACT scores, one method for determining who will succeed in college, range from 1 to 36.

Missouri State University

Nearly one-third of the university's 18,653 students come from the St. Louis region, says Don Simpson, associate vice president for enrollment management.

"We try to get the word out" that the university in Springfield ranks second in enrollment in public universities in Missouri, says Simpson. It's keeping that pace this fall, with total enrollment rising by 5.6 percent and first-time students up by 2.5 percent, he says.

Missouri State's enrollment is up in part because of about 300 "readmits" -- dropouts who have decided to return to school. Their decision to return to college are probably a "reflection of economic times," Simpson says, noting that people realize they need new skills to find good jobs.

The university also has given the unemployed an incentive to return by offering $750 in financial help to part-time students and $1,550 in assistance to full-time students, Simpson said.

"We give them a break in tuition. We got about 60 students that way."

Students are turning more and more to the health sciences, such as sports medicine and physical therapy, Simpson says. They believe that these major majors will help them find more stable employment, he adds.

Truman State University

The good news for Truman in Kirksville is that the enrollment of roughly 1,346 first-time students is up by about 5 percent for U.S. students, says Regina Morin, associate vice president for enrollment management. But the bad news is that enrollment of international students is down about 50 percent because of economic conditions.

Truman has kept its enrollment up by addressing economic conditions confronting those wanting to attend college.

"I've been here 30 years and have never seen a year like this," Morin says, referring to an increase of at least 20 percent in federal student aid requests.

"That's an incredible increase. We've already exceeded the number of special conditions that families file with us when their situation changes. The most common special condition is that a parent has lost a job."

Even so, Morin says, the university is pleased to keep growing, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The number of graduate students is up by 30, to 276 students this fall from 246 last year.

"We don't have an explanation for that," she says, but she suggests that more students are entering grad school because economic conditions make it difficult to find a job.

Private universities

Enrollment is up 13 percent at Webster University, which has 3,300 undergraduate students and 4,100 graduate students in St. Louis, according to Polly Burtch, director of public information. The increase may be due to "keeping our eye on affordability" and increasing the number of financial aid awards, she adds. In addition, the university has done more to market itself, including email marketing to students.

A spokeswoman says Washington University has approximately 6,000 full-time undergraduate students this fall, about the same number it had a year ago. This year's freshman class has approxmiately 1,500 students, compared to 1,430 last year, according to the spokeswoman.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.