While the University of Missouri-St. Louis is experiencing a hiring freeze because of a projected lack of enrollment for the spring semester, it isn’t just sitting back and accepting the situation.
Chancellor Tom George said Thursday that about 600 students who were expected to enroll for next semester still had not signed up. The school is actively trying to figure out if they are just procrastinating or whether outside factors, such as the unsettled atmosphere in north St. Louis County following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, is prompting them to stay away.
“We, of course, are trying to close the gap in the spring enrollment,” George said. “We’re aggressively calling students that haven’t registered to make sure we can get as many of them to come back and register. So we’re working on that very hard, but I thought we need that cushion right now, in terms of a fallback.”
In an interview before his update to the university’s board of curators, which met Thursday on the UMSL campus, George said that he found out several weeks ago that enrollment for the spring was running behind expectations. But he waited before imposing the temporary hiring freeze because he wanted to check the circumstances that were involved.
“In some cases,” he said, “these were returning students not having registered. I looked at that, and the fact that we have a $2 million deficit right now in our operating budget, and it seemed like a prudent thing to do at this point in time to put a temporary freeze on hiring.”
George emphasized that the campus has been safe despite all of the turmoil in the area around it, but he acknowledged that some students may have felt a measure of angst. “I’m not going to blame it all on that,” he said of the enrollment drop, “but you know that could contribute to it.”
He denied what some people have suggested, that in the face of declining enrollment UMSL was trying to mask it by blaming Ferguson.
“I don’t know what’s psychologically going through students’ minds, not to re-register,” he said, “but we’re going to see if we can make up that difference as much as possible.”
He said he wasn’t sure how many of the missing 600 students would have to sign up before he could lift the freeze, which he later told the curators has exceptions that he has already approved.
George emphasized how UMSL has been a focus for constructive reaction to the shooting of Brown by the former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, and how the campus planned for any possible disruptions.
“We allow for protests,” he said. “We’ve also had forums where people can express themselves. At the same time, our police are very careful in how they look at everything that is going on. They interface well with the surrounding municipalities.
“We’ve tried to make sure there’s no violence on the campus and that it’s a very safe place. Fortunately for us, this has been the case.”
North county oasis
In his update to the curators, George called the UMSL campus “an oasis in north county,” where dialogue and academic responses to the underlying conditions in the area can occur. Many of the activities, he noted, were simply extensions of what the campus was already doing in areas such as mental health.
He said the faculty has been actively engaged and that new courses on subjects such as racism and homelessness have already been proposed.
“We are exercising what we should be doing as a land grant institution,” George said.
George also noted that he has sent out a series of messages to the UMSL community, emphasizing campus planning.
“In some people’s minds,” he said, “if you’re located near Ferguson, you’re not safe. We’re very safe, and we have to get that message out.”
Asked by one curator whether the campus had to postpone its final exams because of new eruptions following the decision of the grand jury not to indict Wilson, George said that was not the case at all, that exams will go on as scheduled.
Even more important than the immediate reaction at UMSL to the area’s unrest, he concluded, will be the long-term effects.
“What we’re going to be remembered for as time goes on,” he said, “is not going to be how much damage might have been done to an institution or a campus, but how did you respond to it? How did you rise, how did you become better and better serve the region. That’s what we’re all about here, and that’s our challenge.”
Projected tuition increases
Curators also heard a familiar discussion of an annual topic: how much more students at the university’s four campuses are likely to pay in the 2015-16 school year because of rising costs and reduced state support.
Brian D. Burnett, vice president for finance and chief financial officer for the university system, said that the steady drop in money approved by the Missouri legislature for higher education in general and the UM system in particular is likely to mean tuition will rise by about 1.8 percent — the level of the consumer price index and the limit that campuses can raise tuition without a special waiver.
Students at UMSL will also begin paying a fee of $17.25 a credit hour that they approved to fund a recreation and wellness center on the campus, now under construction.
And students in the nursing school have been told they may have an increase of 20 percent in supplemental fees over the next two years.
In a series of charts, Burnett laid out the continuation of two opposite trends. While state support has gone down, from 62 percent of the system’s operating budget in 2000 to 36 percent now, tuition and fees have risen to make up the difference, going from 29 percent to 51 percent in 15 years. The two trend lines crossed in 2010, when money from students surpassed that from the state.
When inflation is factored in, state appropriations for the UM system is down $186 million a year, or 32 percent, in that time frame.
During the same period, Burnett noted, enrollment has climbed steadily, up 38 percent. The result, he said, is larger classes, which can have a negative effect on students’ education.
Because of the legal limit on tuition increases, he added, raises in Missouri have been far below those in neighboring states. At UMSL, for example, the five-year average increase has been 2 percent; at Mizzou, it has been 2.2 percent. By comparison, the average raises were 4 percent at the University of Illinois, 6.3 percent at the University of Kansas and 9.3 percent at the University of Oklahoma.
“When you think about it,” Burnett said, “we just have fewer resources both from the state side and from the tuition side.”
He noted that faculty salaries are also below those in comparable institutions. Generally, he said, a 1 percent rise in salaries equals a 2 percent increase in tuition, for the amount of money that is brought in. Each 1 percent increase in tuition nets $4.3 million.
If current situations persist, he added, it may be time for university officials to push for changes in the law that limits tuition increases for undergraduate resident students to the Consumer Price Index.
Curators are expected to discuss the tuition issue by teleconference next month, with a final vote scheduled for February.
St. Louis Public Radio is a unit of the University of Missouri-St. Louis.