Southeast plans for possible drop in future enrollment

Tuesday, March 11, 2008
FRED LYNCH ~ Students walked across the campus of Southeast Missouri State University with Academic Hall behind them.

Southeast Missouri State University has grown so quickly it has had to defer certain students, leaving officials scrambling to create new housing. This year, freshman enrollment hit a record high of 1,805, nearly a 19 percent increase over last year.

The trend is expected to continue next year, with enrollment as high or higher. But after that, officials aren't as sure. After years of soaring numbers of high school graduates, up to a five percent drop is expected in Missorui, slightly changing who has the advantage: Instead of universities having their choice of students, students will have their choice of universities, experts say.

Many universities are already preparing for the decline, outlining new recruitment methods and deciding how it will affect admissions.

"Looking at universities nationwide you will see many have admissions based on the competitiveness of the class that applies. The more applications, the more selective we can be," said Dr. Debbie Below, director of admissions and enrollment management at Southeast. However, she said guidelines for admission won't be reduced in order to hit a certain number of accepted students. "We've held to our standards," she said.

Projections show the number of high school graduates in Missouri dropping by about five percent by 2011, according to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, or WICHE. The not-for-profit group attributes the current growth to the "baby boomlet," children born to baby boomers, which will level off in the near future.

According to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the number of ninth-graders in public schools will decrease about nine percent between 2007 and 2011, which could indicate the drop expected by WICHE may last several years. The number of graduates in 2018 is expected to be 54,790, less than a one percent increase over 2002, according to WICHE.

"That doesn't mean our enrollment will automatically decline. I think all of us will do our best to maintain our market share if not enhance our market share," Below said.

She said that as graduates in Missouri decline, the university may look to other states to fill in the gap. "It could mean spending more time in Illinois so we could continue to grow there," she said. This year, 181 first-time freshman are from Illinois, up from 130 in 2005.

The River Campus is a marketable tool throughout the Midwest, she said, as well as the university's historic preservation program, one of only a handful in the country. However, she noted that as a public, regional school, the university's first priority is students that live within a 50-mile radius of Cape Girardeau.

Marcia Fields, director of admissions and recruiting at Three Rivers Community College in Poplar Bluff, Mo., said the college will also reach out to new populations.

"We are increasing recruiting to nontraditional students that have been out of school for a while," she said. "Though we are concerned about those numbers, we are not as concerned as some four-year schools because of our cost-effective measures already," she said.

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