Springfield colleges have mixed results in post-pandemic enrollments

Published: Aug. 31, 2022 at 7:53 PM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - Preliminary college enrollment numbers for the new fall semester show that Springfield’s public universities dropped while the private schools experienced gains.

“COVID didn’t do any of the schools any favors,” said Michael Kolstad, the Chief of Staff for Evangel, a private, faith-based university.

“I think there’s still a little bit of a hangover,” added Clif Smart, the President of Missouri State, the city’s largest public university.

Missouri State’s on-campus enrollment of 18,383 and OTC’s count of 9,509 are down around 500 from last year.

Meanwhile, private schools are a different story.

Drury’s 1,375 preliminary numbers are a three-percent increase, and its 413 freshmen are the largest incoming class in school history.

Evangel expects 2,300-2,400 students this semester, about a 10 percent increase over 2,129 last year.

That’s quite an achievement considering the private school had been through hard times. Over the last several years, Evangel has had to consolidate resources (including folding Central Bible College into the main school’s operation). Starting in 2015, Evangel University was on a federal watch list for shaky financial stability.

“We’re very enthusiastic about the future,” Kolstad said of the turnaround. “But at the same time, we’re cautiously optimistic. It hasn’t been that long ago that it was a struggle.”

Under the leadership of new president Mike Rakes, Evangel has increased fundraising, including a record $10 million gift from the owners of Hobby Lobby. Now the school has many projects in the works, from upgrading residence halls and adding new facilities (like a new sports arena) to adding more on-campus amenities and giving the students more club sports (bass fishing, beach volleyball, disc golf, bowling, and CrossFit this year and archery, axe throwing, cornhole, men’s volleyball, shotgun, spikeball, and three-on-three basketball over the next two years).

“We’d roll out a press release about the club sports, and we’d get a bump as students would reach out to the school wanting more information,” Kolstad said.

That reaction taught administrators a valuable lesson.

They needed to be more aggressive in social media recruitment.

Another example came with a TikTok recruiting video by Evangel Senior Director of Marketing and Communications Erin Hedlun. It garnered over a million views.

“You know, in the old days, that would have equated to sending out a million postcards,` which is not even realistic,” Kolstad pointed out. “And most of those would have been thrown in the trash can. But it’s all online now, and you have to communicate to them efficiently and quickly because they’ll move on. Their attention spans are not very long.”

“We do all the social media sites that students are engaged in,” Smart said of Missouri State’s efforts. “But I think the main point is so many in this generation really want a customized experience. "

Citing that international enrollment, heavily affected by the pandemic, is back up by 42 percent and transfer students are up 12 percent, Smart said he remains optimistic that MSU will continue to rebound even though he realizes students are looking at other options outside of four-year schools.

“So we do have to be more flexible in terms of how things are offered and when they’re offered,” he explained. “But I think the value-proposition of higher education is still there. Not only do you make more money over the course of your lifetime with a two-year, four-year, or graduate degree, but for many, the quality of life is better and the kind of employment you’re able to get is more meaningful and fulfilling. That’s one reason our enrollment is still pretty good given all the things that are happening in the world.”

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