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As Choi leads system, MU deals with enrollment drop

The University of Missouri is looking to different parts of the country for recruitment, as dropping enrollment and state cuts continue to take a toll.

Dr. Mun Choi takes over the four-campus UM System Wednesday in the midst of declining state appropriations, but improving credit rating. The firm Standard & Poor’s upgraded the system’s credit rating to stable Wednesday for “ongoing strong operating performance, fundraising, and financial profile compared with peers.”

The rating firm mentioned the drop in enrollment at its Columbia campus, but expected “modest enrollment growth” across the state.

Interim MU Chancellor Hank Foley said he expected Choi to be a leader that understood the struggles people working in higher education faced. Choi held several high-level positions at the University of Connecticut before coming to Missouri, including dean of the school of engineering and then provost.

“If you haven’t lived all those experiences and those 80-hour weeks, it’s hard to learn it,” Foley told ABC 17 News.

Foley predicted the future of the school would look more diverse in its students and staff, but would come with some service cuts. The school still must decide how it plans to accommodate tens of millions of dollars in state withholdings by the end of the fiscal year, June 30. Higher education also saw a significant decrease in state funding in Gov. Eric Greitens’ proposed FY 2018 budget. Foley said administrators are going through every financial record to find money to make it to the end of June, and are in the process of consulting with campus leaders on how to handle next year’s budget.

“We have to make some difficult decisions about some things that we will no longer do,” Foley said. “The people of Missouri need to know that we cannot do all the things we’ve done before with the kinds of revenue that we have now.”

No decisions on cuts have been made yet, but Foley said any of them will be “data-driven.” Others around campus have said they are ready for tough cuts to be made, but want them based on information like productivity, and their ability to maintain the school’s core values.

Foley said by making the tough decisions to hold spending flat, marginal revenue that might come in could go back into investing the MU’s employees.

“No one ever told them that they took a vow of poverty to work for the University of Missouri, but they might as well have,” Foley said. “[Revenues] need to go back into our infrastructure. We have $740 million and rising in deferred maintenance and repair. That’s unsustainable. And that marginal revenue needs to help us help students of the greatest need.”

Since the protests that took national headlines in 2015, enrollment on campus dropped considerably. The school started in Fall 2015 with 35,448 students, the highest mark in five years. MU now has 31,010 students, its lowest point since Spring 2011.

Students tuition have become a crucial part of MU’s budget, Foley said. Leaving out programs like MU Health and the athletics department, tuition covers about 80% of the $700 million budget dedicated to academic work. Enrollment classes of around 4,500 may become the new normal, Foley said, after several years of record-breaking freshman classes.

To accommodate, the school has turned its attention to different parts of the country to recruit prospective students, while also increasing its presence in Missouri. The school hired four new full-time recruiters, bringing its total to 20. MU News Bureau head Christian Basi said nine of those recruiters work in Columbia and travel around the state, while recruiters work full-time in Kansas City and St. Louis each. Nine more work around the country. Basi said the school has recently turned its attention to places in the southeast, like Atlanta and Washington, D.C., where high school graduation rates are climbing.

But MU’s 20 recruiters is behind a couple of its competitors. The University of Florida added two full-time recruiters this year for a total of 26. The University of Illinois hires 30 recruiters, with regional staff working in Boston and Indianapolis.

Foley said he did not believe MU was being outdone on the recruitment trail. The move to the Southeastern Conference in athletics came at an “amazing” time because of the rising rates of high school graduation in places like Texas and Florida.

“We are getting our feet underneath us,” Foley said. “We will be on the television screens of elementary school students and high school students for the next decade in the Southeastern Conference. We will come to be known as an SEC school.”

Foley said both the budget limitations and recruitment efforts allow the school a chance to re-evaluate what it’s good at providing, and what its message is for prospective students. With a focus on its research facilities and benefit to those across the state through its extension program, Foley said he hoped for a turnaround in enrollment.

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