- Associated Press - Friday, August 25, 2017

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) - Missouri State University President Clif Smart has a clear goal.

“We want to be the undergraduate choice for Missouri. That’s our focus,” he says.

And his plan might be working. The Springfield, Missouri, school has seen steady, continuous enrollment growth for 18 of the past 20 years. With more than 23,500 students last school year - 85 percent of them Missouri residents - Missouri State is the second-largest public university in the state, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

Much of that growth is from the St. Louis region, where the school has snagged up 20, 30 and even 40 percent more students by county this year than four years ago, with St. Charles County showing the largest recruitment gains.

A fifth of Missouri State’s students now come from the St. Louis area.

Arguably, the school’s most recent gains have come at the expense of the University of Missouri-Columbia, whose enrollment has sunk following racial discord and leadership upheaval in 2015.

Mizzou remains the state’s flagship university. But Missouri State is the school with momentum.

And in Smart’s view, it’s a recruitment rivalry that benefits the state.

“Students are shopping and picking the school that fits them best,” he said. “(Mizzou is) our major competitor. We’re going to try to sell that this is the best place in terms of cost, quality, student services, residence hall and sports - and so are they. That’s a great thing; it’s a free market.”

Affordability is perhaps Missouri State’s biggest pitch.

The projected cost for a full-time undergraduate who takes 15 credit hours each semester is $7,306 total for the fall and spring semesters. That includes fees for things like the campus gym, sustainability efforts and a student group that brings events to campus.

Among 12 public universities in the state, the Springfield school is the fifth-least expensive for in-state undergraduates and second-least expensive for in-state graduate students, based on tuition alone.

But Smart said the school’s appeal also has something to do with its size when compared to its largest direct rivals.

“They talk about the smaller campus feel, the friendliness, the interaction with faculty and programming,” Smart said. “Those are all important things as we close the gap in what going to the University of Missouri-Columbia is like and what going to the University of Arkansas is like versus what’s going on here.”

And yet, the appeal of being small is at odds with the booming student enrollment at Missouri State, which now must manage its growth or risk becoming a victim of it. The school, which is largely white, also faces the challenge of becoming more diverse.

Andrew Nolan, 20, feels at home at Missouri State.

The soon-to-be junior, a vocal performance major, said he loves the excitement and the opportunity that comes with the “big city.” He’s from Mountain Grove, a small town an hour east of Springfield.

“It’s charming because it’s a little city of its own,” Nolan said about the campus. He lives in student housing and works downtown at the popular 24-hour bakery Hurts Donut Company to pay for the “reasonable” gap in tuition and fees that he said isn’t covered by scholarships.

He considered Mizzou, which also has a music program, but something about Missouri State “seemed better.”

That’s common when asking students, “Why Missouri State?”

It’s far enough to get away from home, but close enough to reconnect with family on the weekends.

Jaggar Deeds, 24, of Republic, Missouri, enrolled as an undergraduate because he could afford it while continuing to work at Bass Pro Shop. He checked out Mizzou and the University of Missouri-Kansas City, but being able to live at home and save money made him choose Missouri State.

He has stayed, drawn to the chance to get his master of business administration degree, plus a second master’s in health promotions.

“It’s a big campus with a small, private campus feel,” he said.

For rising freshman Joseph “JT” Schuman, 19, of Chesterfield, the Mizzou legacy ran deep.

Schuman’s mom, dad, uncle and cousins all were Mizzou Tigers. He grew up at Memorial Stadium, wearing black and gold.

Earlier this summer, Schuman showed up in Columbia, sat through freshman orientation courses, built his schedule and even got his student ID card.

“He was so excited about going to Mizzou,” Tom Schuman, JT’s dad, said. “He got his ACT (score) up to get in, and he did. Then we’re driving back and I ask him, ‘What’s wrong?’ He tells me something isn’t right.”

JT Schuman calls it a “happiness feeling” that wasn’t there, and said that he would have regretted it. He visited Missouri State and the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg and made up his mind.

Why Missouri State? “There’s just something about the environment here,” he said. His dad noted that the “feel” is more “down to Earth,” which fits his son well.

Smart and other Missouri State leaders point to 2005 as a turning point, when the campus changed names from being a directional school, Southwest Missouri State University, to simply Missouri State University.

“That has been hugely important for us,” the college president said. “Our foundation has more than doubled, grants have more than doubled. It’s just been a different game with recruiting students, international students and faculty. The whole profile of the university has changed.”

Branding is a major effort for MSU. Everything on campus is branded. The bottom of the campus pool sports the bear logo. One of the three bear statues on campus has its own Twitter account. Signs along the street let passers-by know they’re in Maroon Nation.

The campus has also orchestrated a construction boom, focused most heavily on modernizing existing buildings.

Off campus, meanwhile, developers are racing to add units for a student body that’s craving additional housing.

Bryan Magers, a developer who has been in the Springfield market for more than 30 years, is putting the finishing touches on Bear Village.

Bear Village is a 664-bed, seven-building apartment complex just west of campus. Room size varies from studios to four-bedroom, dorm-like suites. The last few buildings aren’t quite finished, but the complex is about 88 percent filled, with 40 spaces on hold for international students.

And every part of Bear Village screams luxury. Granite countertops, magazine-worthy decorations and furnishings, a pool equipped with a volleyball net and lounge chairs in the water. Magers is working on adding a dog park and a pavilion with multiple barbecue grills.

Magers opened the first building in 2012. Since then, other national developers such as Aspen Development Corp. and Denver-based Beacon Student Housing have joined in. They see potential not just with Missouri State, but with Drury and Evangel universities, plus Ozark Technical Community College.

“The more students that live near campus, the better the feel of the campus,” Smart said. “They’re more likely to walk to campus for concerts, speakers and events.”

It prompts a question, though: With construction on and off campus and a growing enrollment, does Missouri State’s appeal threaten its success?

Smart laughs a little at that idea.

“We’re not worried about it,” he said. “We’ve always tried hard to be true to who we are, and we’re going to work hard not to lose that feel as we grow - moderate pace growth.”

That tempered approach applies to on-campus student housing.

Smart wants to avoid what he sees as mistakes made at Mizzou, where multiple national developers added off-campus units even as the university poured money into on-campus dormitory upgrades and construction. Mizzou has since had to mothball some of those dorms because of falling enrollment.

Missouri State maintains just 4,100 beds, leaving about three-fourths of students to seek off-campus housing.

“I think, on the whole, we want to be very prudent on not overbuilding, not going too fast,” Smart said. “We’re kind of the tortoise in this race - slow and steady wins the prize. That’s kind of our growth plan.”

As the Missouri State campus grows, however, the ratio of students of color has remained low.

Of the more than 23,500 students enrolled at Missouri State last year, 918 were African-American, 771 were Hispanic and 343 were Asian. Additionally, 775 students identified as being of more than one race.

But 80 percent of the students on campus are Caucasian.

Rising senior Jordan Ewing feels the gap.

Ewing, a Jennings native, picked Missouri State because of the distance from home and the sizable financial aid package. But staying hasn’t always been easy.

“I don’t see a lot of students of color when I walk around, not on campus or in this city,” he said. Ewing sometimes regrets not going to a historically black school. The faculty and other students in the anthropology and sociology departments where he’s double-majoring are among the reasons he stays.

He recalls a class during which there was a discussion about how people of color felt about a particular issue, and Ewing was the only person of color in the class. When he shared his opinion, a white man in the class stepped out because “he couldn’t handle hearing my experience,” Ewing said.

He also recalls being called racial slurs by someone driving by while he walked home one night.

“I didn’t have any perceptions (about Springfield or Missouri State) before coming here,” Ewing said. “My parents raised me to experience different personalities and cultures. But it’s a culture shock coming from a classroom full of black students and going to a school where I’m frequently the only one there.”

Jayla Battle, who will be a junior, has had a different experience.

Battle is from Manchester, and said her time as a student of color has been “welcoming.” It’s hard for her to hear that some of her peers don’t share her experience.

It’s an issue that concerns the college’s president.

Smart knows that racial strife could quickly undo the other gains at Missouri State. But he said the school has taken steps to avoid the kind of upheaval seen at Mizzou in 2015, including a revamped effort to hire diverse faculty and staff. He said there’s an ongoing recruitment plan to bolster diversity among the student population.

On that point he expresses a level of confidence that also takes a dig at the state’s flagship school.

“Can something catastrophic occur? Can someone videotape one of my faculty members going off on journalists irrationally? Yes,” Smart said, referencing an incident in which Mizzou assistant professor Melissa Click was infamously filmed denying media access to student campus protesters. “But you’ve just got to believe you can manage through that kind of crisis without losing 35 percent of your incoming class.”

When a group of predominantly African-American students at Missouri State came to Smart and other administrators in 2015, shortly after the Mizzou protests, he said, they had a conversation about building a better climate on campus.

“That’s not to say everything is perfect. It’s not,” Smart said. “But our goal is that every student from every background, from the most progressive to the most conservative, feels at home and part of the Missouri State family.”

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Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, https://www.stltoday.com


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