Total enrollment at MU continued to decline in 2018, but for the first time since 2015, freshman enrollment grew.

Freshman enrollment increased by 13 percent from fall 2017 to fall 2018. This year, 4,673 first-time college students are enrolled in classes at MU, 539 more than in 2017, according to a news release. Total enrollment at MU is down 3.3 percent from 30,870 students in 2017 to 29,866 in 2018.

The 2018 freshman class also includes 30.5 percent more students from minority backgrounds than the 2017 freshmen. There were 1,015 minority students enrolled in the 2018 freshman class, making up 21.7 percent of the class.

MU’s retention rate increased to 87.3 percent, an increase of less than 1 percent over last year. The rate exceeded the previous record retention rate of 87.2 percent, set in fall 2015. The retention rate is the percentage of MU students who stay at MU after freshman year.

Official enrollment numbers collected in MU’s fourth-week census report included 126 incoming freshmen who enrolled in MU since May, when MU reported that freshman enrollment was up 14.4 percent from the same time in 2017.

MU enrollment continuously increased from 2013 until 2015 to an all-time high enrollment of 35,448 students. That year, 6,211 freshmen were enrolled in classes. Enrollment has been sliding since. From 2015 to 2016, enrollment dropped 22.7 percent and another 14.6 percent from 2016 to 2017.

“Attracting students is not an exact science,” MU spokeswoman Liz McCune said, “I’m quite happy to achieve a 13 percent increase in (freshman) enrollment. It’s a pretty phenomenal turnaround.”

Louisiana State University is the only other SEC university that experienced double-digit growth in new freshmen, according to MU’s news release.

Enrollment dropping since 2015

Officials have attributed dropping enrollment in part to student protests during the 2015 fall semester. The protests, organized by Concerned Student 1950, led then-UM System President Tim Wolfe and MU Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin to resign over claims they were not taking campus racism and racial inequity seriously.

Administrators have also cited state budget cuts and a decrease in high school graduates pursuing higher education for the dropping enrollment.

Since 2015, MU has made recruiting new students a priority, setting a goal of enrolling 6,000 new undergraduates by 2023, which includes first-time students and transfers. In February, MU leaders touted a spike in freshman applications and said it was partly due to recruitment efforts like visiting high schools and college fairs.

MU hired Pelema Morrice to be vice provost of enrollment and strategic management in 2016. Morrice oversaw MU’s enrollment drive until June, when he left to become president of a community college in New Hampshire. Kim Humphrey has since been named the interim vice provost of enrollment and strategic management.

Damage control has been another high priority for the UM System since 2015. The system has paid at least $370,000 to the world’s largest public relations firm, Edelman PR. Penn State also contracted Edelman after its former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky’s child abuse came to light. The system is also more than one year into a three-year, $1.27 million contract with the branding agency 160over90, which was signed in July 2017.

This spring, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found a decrease in the number of students exploring higher education. In Missouri, the study found that postsecondary education enrollment dropped 3 percent, meaning that less people in Missouri are pursuing a college education. Results for fall enrollment numbers will be released in December.

Other Midwest and SEC universities growing

In February, University of Missouri System President Mun Choi announced application numbers were up across the system, but total enrollment has dropped at three of the system’s campuses. Along with the flagship campus, Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla said it saw a 3.1 percent decrease in total enrollment this fall in a news release Wednesday. The University of Missouri-St. Louis saw a 1.5 percent decrease in total enrollment this fall, according to McCune. The University of Missouri-Kansas City has not released final enrollment reports, but the latest numbers provided by McCune show a 1.4 percent increase in total enrollment.

While MU enrollment was still declining, other Midwestern and SEC institutions were growing.

MU often competes with Missouri State University in Springfield for Missouri residents seeking higher education. Missouri State had 40 more students enrolled this year than in fall 2017, a total of 24,390 students. The university has set a new fall enrollment record for seven straight years, according to a news release.

The University of Arkansas, another land grant university in the SEC, saw its undergraduate enrollment increase by just under 1 percent. Its enrollment grew by 220 students this fall to a total of 27,778 students, according to its enrollment report.

The University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign saw its total undergraduate enrollment grow 3.16 percent to 49,339 students despite having 67 fewer freshmen this fall, according to enrollment reports from the past two years.

MU collects enrollment numbers for the U.S. Department of Education, which collects data from universities across the nation so people can compare enrollment numbers, McCune said.

Supervising editor is Brendan Crowley:, 882-5720.

  • I am a Fall 2019 Community Outreach member, and I was previously an Education reporter in Fall 2018. I am a senior studying magazine journalism, and you can reach me at

Recommended for you