The University of Missouri-St. Louis says its second-semester enrollment drop won’t be as dire as first thought, but a hiring freeze for the campus remains in effect.
Chancellor Tom George imposed the freeze last month in the face of a projected drop of 600 students compared with the spring semester last year. At the time, George said that one of the factors influencing the decline appeared to be what he called ““widespread anxiety about the region in general and north county in particular” in the wake of the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in August.
“Misplaced though it may be,” George added, “it is a perception affecting the community and UMSL.”
To help increase enrollment in the spring semester, and shore up a budget that already had a $2 million deficit, George said UMSL would stage an aggressive campaign to contact students who had been expected to sign up for classes that start this coming Tuesday but had not yet done so.
The effort apparently worked.
Alan Byrd, UMSL’s dean of enrollment services, said in an interview that when second semester begins, the campus expects a drop of 2 percent in enrollment, less than 200 students, and it’s still possible that it could match the student head count from last spring.
“We’ve left a ton of messages,” Byrd said, “and we have quite a few students who are right now seeking advising appointments. So we hope it comes down a little more by next week. The goal of course is to at least break even, but we would definitely take being down less than 2 percent.”
Asked about George’s view of the effect of unrest in Ferguson on the drop in enrollment, Byrd said that has been a factor.
“We had a few students who had safety concerns, who wanted to sit out this semester,” he said, “but it was very minimal."
Other reasons for the delay in signing up, Byrd added, are ones familiar to many students: procrastination and a lack of money.
“We had just a ton of students who said they just hadn’t had time to make an advisement appointment yet,” he said. “Quite a few had financial issues. Students had a balance, and they were working and trying to save up the money to pay off that balance before they could return and register.
“For other students, they had gotten new jobs and they weren’t quite sure they could squeeze their classes into their schedule. There were a lot of variables involved. We just tried to make sure that we found a way to accommodate as many students as possible and get them back in school.”
As far as the hiring freeze goes, UMSL spokesman Bob Samples had this statement:
“The campus remains under a hiring freeze, though the chancellor has granted some exceptions. UMSL entered the academic year with a $2 million structural deficit – which we believed was going to be covered by increased fall and spring enrollment. Conditions changed and that enrollment increase did not happen as expected.
“The chancellor will be meeting soon with the University Assembly Budget and Planning Committee to consider options to address the current deficit. The freeze certainly won't be lifted prior to that meeting.”
UMSL’s fall semester began shortly after Brown was shot to death by then Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, on Aug. 9. Up until that point, the campus appeared headed for an enrollment boost of 4 percent or more. It still managed to hit a record, with 12,161 students enrolled on campus, but that was an increase of about 1 percent. Many of the cancellations came at the last minute. Enrollment last spring was 11,724.
Before George announced the hiring freeze, he had sent out regular updates to the UMSL community on what the campus was doing to help Ferguson rebound from the effects of the sometimes violent protests. He reassured all concerned that despite the proximity of the campus to the unrest, there had been no spillover effect.
“There has been no incivility toward one another,” he said in one message. “There have been no threats to people or property. There have been no security calls, coarseness, vulgarity or strife on the campus. It is an environment conducive to learning, productivity and growth for our students, faculty and staff.”
George denied what some people had suggested, that UMSL was simply trying to mask declining enrollment 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.”
In this week’s interview, Byrd said the recovery effort had gone a long way toward that goal, as well as the larger aim of making sure students finished what they had started, particularly those who were close to their goal.
“The first wave of calls really just focused on students who were enrolled in the fall and had eligibility to return in the spring but hadn’t yet picked up classes,” he said.
“Then we started focusing on seniors who had attended UMSL in the last year and were only a semester away from graduating. So we started calling them as well, to get them to come back and finish their degree.”
St. Louis Public Radio is a unit of the University of Missouri-St. Louis.