GEORGE KENNEDY: Promising start to the school year, on several fronts

Thursday, September 4, 2014 | 4:54 p.m. CDT

We could hardly ask for a better beginning of the new academic year at our university.

You’ve seen these numbers, but they look so good they’re worth reviewing:

  • Highest enrollment ever, with 35,000 or more when the final figures come in;
  • Highest ability freshman class ever, with a mean ACT score of 25.9;
  • Highest retention rate ever, with 86 percent of last year’s students returning;
  • Highest minority enrollment ever, at 5,386 students;
  • Highest international enrollment ever, 2,323 students;
  • And second-highest first-time college class ever, only 14 below the record of 6,560.

The only people happier than Chancellor Loftin about that 35,000 will be the developers of all the new student apartments that are metastasizing all around town.

There’s good news on the athletics front, too. The football Tigers disposed of the pesky Jackrabbits last week. Even better, none of the players has so far been accused of anything more serious than a panicky backward pass out of bounds.

Still, I’ve always seen it as my role to find the gray cloud around every silver lining. When the university is the subject, the cloud is never hard to spot. It always looks like a giant dollar sign.

All those students bring, along with their intellectual curiosity and their cars, another essential. That’s their tuition money.

As the legislature becomes ever less willing to support the state’s flagship institution, tuition has far outpaced state appropriations as the university’s main revenue source.

Last year, university figures show, tuition accounted for 62 percent of general operating revenue; state support produced just 32 percent. (The rest came from multiple smaller sources.)

Missouri provides less support to the university, on a per capita basis, than any of our neighboring states. Arkansas does twice as well, Kansas nearly that well and Nebraska even better. Nationally, we rank a proud 44th.

In proportion to enrollment, the university gets less from the state than it did in 2001.

But that’s enough gloom for one weekend, don’t you think? Let’s get back to football.

The Wall Street Journal published a fascinating chart last week. The headline called it “The college football grid of shame.” As journalists are wont to do, the writer of that phrase focused on the negative. That’s only half the story.

The chart is divided by horizontal and vertical axes. The horizontal runs from “weakling” on the left to “powerhouse” on the right. The vertical puts “admirable” at the top and “embarrassing” at the bottom. Quickly now – which quadrant would you examine to find our Tigers?

I confess to looking low at first. I guess I was thinking of Derrick Washington and Dorial Green-Beckham. That’s not what the Journal staff had in mind. Instead, the admirable-versus-embarrassing formula included “a weighted calculation” of academic performance, NCAA violations, attendance, off-season arrests and subsidy from state or student fees.

Obviously, the upper right-hand quadrant is where you want your team to be. And that’s where you’ll find the Tigers.

In fact, the Journal rates our boys as more admirable than any other SEC team. Of recent and future opponents, only Nebraska and Indiana outshine the Tigers. Overall, Northwestern tops the admirability ranking, with Wisconsin, Stanford and Clemson just behind.

Other SEC teams, though less admirable than ours, made it into the most desirable quadrant. Florida, Auburn, LSU, Georgia and South Carolina are rated more powerful if not quite as clean. Arkansas and Vanderbilt are a bit behind the Tigers on both criteria.

The only SEC team rated a weakling is Kentucky.

The rest of our new playmates turn up in the category of powerful but embarrassing. Alabama is placed in a virtual tie with Florida State and Oklahoma as the most powerful of the shameful. (Oklahoma’s rating, you’ll be glad to know, took a sharp drop when the Sooners picked up Green-Beckham after MU booted him.)

Mike Alden, our athletics director, likes to describe his domain as the “front porch” of the university – not the most important component but the most visible.

As we start the new year, the front porch gleams and the house is full of promise. Never mind that gray cloud.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor for the Missourian. He writes a weekly column for the Missourian.

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