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KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The Missouri Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development (DHEWD) released data last week showing full-time equivalent enrollment at 67% of the state’s public colleges and universities dropped this fall.

Interviews with representatives from higher education institutions revealed the problem is more than the pandemic, with some pointing to shifting demographics, the changing economy, rising costs of tuition and more.

“Two years of the three-year period in question have been during a global pandemic,” Kent Heier, spokesperson for Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, said in an email. 

“The young adults who have graduated high school the last two years have done so amid greater uncertainty than any recent graduating classes, and many have been reluctant to commit to continuing their education until more of that uncertainty is resolved.”

The Enrollment Exodus

Missouri institutions enrollment figures have steadily dropped since 2016, with 246,999 students enrolled in a public university or college five years ago, to 211,176 students enrolled this year – nearly a 15.6% difference.

Four-year public university enrollment figures decreased by 4% between fall 2020 and fall 2021, from 137,464 students to 136,957, whereas two-year public college enrollment dropped by 8.6% during the same time, from 75,465 students, to 74,219 by 2021.

Aside from the fact Missouri’s high school population is declining – which Jessica Duren, assistant commissioner at the DHEWD, says resulted in fewer college applicants – the cost of college has risen 169% since the 1980s, but the average salary among young adults only rose 20%.

According to a recent survey of high schoolers conducted by ECMC Group, a nonprofit aimed at helping student borrowers, the likelihood of attending a four-year school dropped roughly 20% in the past year and a half, with soaring tuition costs and student loan debt raised as the number one concern among young people.

“An economic downturn would have historically driven up enrollments especially at community colleges, but we didn’t see that effect this time (and that wasn’t unique to Missouri by any means),” Duren said in an email. 

“Uncertainty on how courses would be delivered, health concerns, work uncertainty, etc, likely played a role in declines during the onset of the pandemic.”

Heier said Missouri Western, which saw a 9.5% drop in enrollment this year, faced personnel changes in its enrollment management division last year, resulting in delayed recruitment and admission processes at the university.

Other universities also experienced staffing shortages, yet did not list it as a factor in their enrollment declines when FOX4 emailed them.

“With stability in our leadership and a better defined recruitment process (this year), applications and admits for Fall 2022 are far ahead of where they were last year,” he said.

School Statistics

Missouri Southern State University (MSSU) in Joplin, a four-year institution, saw the largest enrollment decline of any higher education institution in the state this year, with 5,036 students in 2020 to 4,346 by fall 2021 – a 13.7% decrease. Harris Stowe State University, a two-year institution, had the second largest enrollment decline this year, from 1,400 students to 1,210 – a 13.6% drop.

The University of Missouri in St. Louis, a four-year institution, saw the largest enrollment spike this fall, from 13,874 students in 2020, to 15,189 in 2021 – a 9.5% spike. Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville, another four-year institution, has the second highest enrollment gain, with 7,262 students to 7,868 by fall 2021 – an 8.3% increase.

Gregg Jones, director of communications and marketing at East Central College, which is a two-year institution, said the college provides scholarships and programs, like a student-run food pantry, which he believes contributes to the institution’s growing enrollment figures this year.

East Central College’s enrollment figures had been steadily declining since 2016, but this year, the institution saw a 2.5% increase in its enrollment from 2020.

Offering dual enrollment classes to high school students for college credit, and establishing women’s soccer and men’s baseball teams, helped attract student applicants to the college, he said.

“The extra support can make the difference between students dropping out of college or coming back to take classes during the next semester,” he said in an email. “We want to help students achieve their goals by helping them stay at East Central College.”

“The result of what we do is higher enrollment.”

Jones said institutions dedicated to helping students financially and academically – from the time they apply, to the moment they graduate – will see enrollment figures improve.

He said communicating during the pandemic is challenging, which is why universities need to be adamant with their retention efforts.

“We (East Central College) also have been communicating more regularly to all students to make them aware of the deadlines to enroll, and to be sure they are aware of all of the resources available to them,” Jones said in an email. “Traditional methods of reaching students, a letter in the mail, is not enough.”

Only nine colleges and universities, about 33%, saw enrollment figures increase between 2020 and 2021.

In a five year span, between 2015 and 2020, two-year college enrollment figures dropped by 11.1%, while four-year institutions decreased 20.2% – nearly a 58% difference.

“Financially, there are several options for students who are unable to pay the “sticker price” for tuition and fees,” Duren said in an email.

She said Missouri state aid programs, including the A+ Scholarship, Fast Track Workforce Incentive Grant, Access Missouri and federally-supported programs through the Missouri Job Center provides options for students to lower out-of-pocket costs.

“Not everyone chooses the same path, and they aren’t always linear,” she said in an email. “Not everyone can or will want to go straight into a four-year program, and that’s okay.”

For more information on enrollment figures for Missouri’s public colleges and universities, visit the Missouri Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development’s website.