COLUMBIA — MU has been preparing for it. Columbia Public Schools is insulated from it. But across Missouri and across the country, the number of high school graduates is in steady decline.
A survey released in 2008 by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education predicted that the high school senior class of 2009-10 would be the largest ever in Missouri, reaching 70,000 students. After that, the survey predicted, the number of high school graduates would decrease by as much as 5 percent per year until 2015.
The main reason for the decrease is that the children of baby boomers are old enough to be out of high school and, in many cases, of higher education, said Tracy Greever-Rice, associate director of community and economic development at the Office of Social and Economic Data Analysis at MU.
The trend is showing up across the United States. In some places, including much of Missouri, it is especially noticeable.
"Missouri is a relatively older state, and our population is growing less quickly as other parts of the country," Greever-Rice said. "So because we're a little older and we're a little slower in growth, we're going to see more of a drop-off than some states that are younger and growing more faster."
MU prepared by expanding its recruitment
MU started preparing for the decrease in the number of high school graduates seven or eight years ago, said Ann Korschgen, vice provost for enrollment management. Back then, the university started analyzing demographic data from Missouri and neighboring states to get a sense of the decrease.
The first decision was to increase recruitment efforts in the state by establishing full-time admissions representatives in Kansas City and St. Louis.
Then, full-time recruiters were sent to Chicago and Dallas.
Fast forward to the fall of 2011. This year, MU had a record high number of enrolled freshmen. Even though the number of in-state freshmen decreased by 166, to 4,243 students, there was an increase of 174 in the number of out-of-state students, to 1,925. Grand total: eight more students than 2010.
Starting this year, MU assigned a full-time recruiter to cover Minneapolis, Denver and Oklahoma.
Recruiting out-of-state is a little more work than in state, Jawann Pollard, a Chicago regional representative, said.
"Because the University of Missouri is the flagship institution of the state of Missouri, there's a little bit less explanation I have to do in St. Louis and Kansas City about what is Mizzou, what kind of programs we offer," Pollard said.
He worked as an MU recruiter in St. Louis and Kansas City the past two years but this year moved to Chicago to work as one of two full-time MU recruitment reps there. He handles the south side of Chicago, the southern suburbs and south into the rest of Illinois.
Pollard tries to reach students through high school visits and fairs, attends college planning workshops, explains the university's programs and even helps students fill out applications to MU.
How does he convince them? Some MU programs sell themselves, Pollard said. For others, there's more explaining to do. But there's another reason why students come to Missouri: The price is right.
Although tuition is higher for nonresidents — at MU, they pay up to $517 more per credit — students can become Missouri residents fairly easily. And even if they end up paying out-of-state tuition, total university costs often remain lower than what they would have paid at an Illinois university, Pollard said.
If MU had not put extra effort in out-of-state recruiting, numbers would have looked different. From the fall of 2002 to the fall of 2010, the number of nonresident students at MU grew from 4,690 to 8,303, accounting for a 77 percent increase.
As Korschgen put it, "If we had not recruited out-of-state students, we would have far fewer students attending MU than we currently have."
Columbia schools far less affected
Principal Mark Maus said Rock Bridge High School is not seeing a decrease in the number of graduates. The current senior class there has about 570 students, about the same as last year's senior class. The junior class is even larger. And the sophomore class is the largest ever at Rock Bridge, with 630 students.
Maus said he expects a decrease in the number of graduates at Rock Bridge when the district's current sixth-graders reach 12th grade, but it will not be a part of this trend. And by then, the decrease in the number of high school graduates in Missouri will have begun to reverse.
"In Columbia, we've been fairly resilient to a lot of national trends," said Tracey Conrad, principal at Hickman High School. "Although we certainly felt the impact of the economy, I think we're somewhat even isolated because we don't replicate a lot of the more national trends to the extent that maybe some other communities experience."
Enrollment in Columbia Public Schools increased by 512 students this fall, to 18,070 students.
The increase of students students in Columbia schools are the result of more families moving to the city, Maus and Conrad said. The city has several "drawing points," Conrad said, among them the university system, the hospitals and other industries that draw educated people.
Columbia is also a destination for a slightly different category: People in need of social aid.
"I grew up in a town of 4,000; we didn’t have a food bank," Maus said. "So if a family was really down on their luck because their father and mother lost their job or extenuating circumstances that they can't control, they're probably better off going somewhere where food is more readily accessible, where they can find cheaper living."
Fewer opportunities hurt rural areas
The state's rural areas that people leave to find resources in Columbia and other Missouri cities are the areas that will be most affected by the declining number of students. A Missouri map drawn by the Office of Social and Economic Data Analysis shows student density, with each black dot standing for 10 students. The black dots are crammed mainly into four areas: St. Louis, Kansas City, central Missouri — which includes Columbia — and southwest Missouri — which includes Springfield and Branson.
Northern Missouri and parts of the state's southeast have far fewer black dots. These dots represent the students who attend small, rural schools in areas where the population is older and the economy is mostly dependent on agriculture.
"In some rural parts of Missouri, we have K-12 school districts with enrollments as low as a few hundred children, trying to provide for all the needs across the developmental spectrum," Greever-Rice said. "And it's really hard in a complicated world to do that."
And it will get harder. As school populations shrink, budgets — which are calculated based on the number of hours attended multiplied by the number of students — decrease as well. With budget cuts, there are fewer resources for sustaining educational programs, tutoring and extra assistance.
Maus put it bluntly: "Fewer opportunities."
"Decreased enrollment results in less money, less money causes program and teacher reductions. As a result, class sizes increase, services decrease and the quality of education is potentially jeopardized," said Patrick Williams, superintendent of the Kirksville R-III School District.
The school district Williams supervises in northern Missouri was not affected by the decrease in the number of students. Enrollment numbers went up a little, from about 2,400 students last year to about 2,500 this year. Williams attributes that to the fact that Kirksville, with a population of 17,500, has an education-oriented community, which tends to increase slightly because of education and health facilities.
But a lot of the areas around Kirksville have been losing residents because of fewer job opportunities, Williams said. Unless they are located near metro areas, near rivers or highways, there is not much to keep people from leaving.
Urban areas also troubled
Rural areas in northern Missouri aren't the only places that might struggle because of population loss. St. Louis and Kansas City metropolitan areas are affected by the same problem, but for different reasons.
The Kansas City School District lost its accreditation in September, after achieving only three out of 14 standards on the state’s annual performance report. The loss of accreditation follows a stormy period, which included the district closing 28 out of its 61 schools in January 2010. More students are expected to leave the district after the recent loss of accreditation.
And the Kansas City district is not a singular case. Accreditation problems in St. Louis City and Kansas City have caused students to switch to private or suburban schools in recent years, both Maus and Conrad said, so a further decrease in the number of students is not good news to troubled urban districts.
If areas such as northern and southeastern Missouri and St. Louis have generally been losing population over the past 10 years, several counties in the southwestern part of the state have been increasing their populations by up to 42 percent since 2000.
"A lot of migration into Missouri can be attributed to a growing retirement population," Greever-Rice said. "These people don't tend to bring kids with them; their kids are grown. So our overall population is growing, and our child population is growing, too, but not as fast."
People retiring in southwest Missouri create job opportunities but generally in the low wage, service category, which doesn’t necessarily translate into higher incomes for the local workforce, Greever-Rice added. Just like other areas in the middle part of the United States, she said, Missouri still has to answer the question: "What is it attractive for seniors here, besides open space?"
Economy helps college enrollment
At a national level, the number of high school graduates had been climbing for the past 15 years, until it reached a record 2.9 million students in 2010, according to the Western Interstate Commission of Higher Education.
The subsequent decline has affected mainly the Northeast and Midwest — and less so the South and Southwest. Differences are due to birth rates and domestic migration, said Brian Prescott, the commission's director of policy research, in the policy analysis and research unit.
Overall, university enrollments in the country will continue to grow, especially at broad-access institutions such as community colleges.
"That is largely because post-secondary enrollments are counter-cyclical — all other things equal, they tend to climb when the economy is struggling because college has lower opportunity costs when employment prospects are bleaker," Prescott said.
The good news about having fewer high school graduates? Admission to high-end universities could become less competitive.
But Prescott said he is not convinced that will happen, as colleges have adopted innovations that boost applications. For instance, he said, students can now easily apply to more schools with tools like the Common Application.
"Plus, there has never been a time in history when a family-sustaining wage is so inextricably intertwined with a post-secondary education," he said.
Prescott said that the most important of the projection's implications concern the finding that "virtually all the growth anywhere in the country is among Hispanic graduates."
"Institutions are going to be matriculating students from underrepresented populations at much higher rates," he said. "In order for them to be successful — and by extension for our society to be successful and prosperous — post-secondary institutions are going to have to find ways to serve those students better than we have historically."