Will anti-LGBTQ bills in MO scare off college students? MSU official calls it a 'concern'

At a town hall Friday, Missouri State officials were asked if they worry that anti-LGBTQ and anti-diversity proposals filed during the legislative session might prompt students and faculty to seek higher education and career options in other states.

"I definitely identify with that concern," said Zora Mulligan, executive vice president. "And I know that it's something students are thinking about as they make decisions about where to attend college and where they think they will have the best experience."

Zora Mulligan
Zora Mulligan

Mulligan said the university must continue to work hard to show students and faculty from all backgrounds how much they are wanted and part of campus.

"Something that we should be proud of on this campus is the extent to which we are welcoming of lots and lots of different kinds of students," she said.

"We always have progress to make. We can always improve in that area but I think as a campus community we can certainly do many things to indicate that we are open to lots of different kinds of students and that is actually a strength of this institution and something that we hope we continue in the future."

The 90-minute town hall was split into two parts.

During the segment Mulligan led on enrollment strategies, there were several questions about diversity, equity and inclusion issues.

Her focus was the ongoing work to improve recruitment and retention amid the challenges faced by many public, four-year universities in Missouri and beyond.

This year, proposals in the Missouri General Assembly seek to impose a range of restrictions, mostly in K-12 schools. They seek to prohibit transgender girls from competing in girls sports and the teaching of "divisive concepts" including theories of systemic racism, and to increase oversight of how history is taught.

Mulligan said the university's ongoing diversity, equity and inclusion efforts include working with Complete College America to make systemic changes aimed at addressing equity gaps, removing barriers, and ensuring students have the tools needed to succeed in college.

Mulligan said making sure students are "working with faculty that are welcoming and can help them be successful is going to be a really important part of that work."

Part of the town hall was led by provost John Jasinski, who provided an update on the merger of two colleges — the College Arts and Letters and the College Humanities and Public Affairs — into the Judith Enyeart Reynolds College of Arts and Humanities.

At the end of that segment, MSU President Clif Smart said the primary goal of the merger of the two colleges was to achieve greater synergy. He said once combined, the new interdisciplinary college will serve more than 3,000 majors and achieve financial savings.

But Smart added there were no plans to eliminate any filled positions.

The segment on enrollment strategies, led by Mulligan, generated the most questions during the town hall. People attended in person or by Zoom.

More:This week in Jefferson City: Missouri legislature continues focus on schools, trans youth

'We're not going to be a shrinking institution'

Mulligan said enrollment declines and demographic projections have many U.S. colleges and universities facing a "desperate situation."

Missouri State has devoted months to figuring out how to better recruit and retain students amid a changing higher education landscape. Higher education has dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic, rising inflation, and a evolving job market.

She said state funding increases in recent years have cushioned, but not eliminated, the budget cuts prompted by enrollment shifts and declines.

"We've got to figure out what can we do to reverse that trend," she said.

To that end, representatives from across campus are investigating strategies and seeing what works. They are also working on a longer-term plan.

Efforts include finding ways to reach freshman, transfer, and international students and to put the programs and the supports in place to keep students on track to graduate in four to six years.

"We are going to be very bold and we're going to say that we're not going to be a shrinking institution, even though we are working in an environment where a lot of higher education leaders have accepted that reality. It's not going to be the case at Missouri State," she said.

Months in, Mulligan said there were signs that recruiting by the admissions staff is paying off.

At the town hall, she showed fall enrollment indicators, as of late January, that point to an uptick in freshman going into the next school year.

  • Compared to a year ago, there have been 10,232 applications from freshmen, an increase of 5%

  • Number of students admitted for fall 2023 stands at 7,854, an increase of 18%.

  • Number of students paying deposits for fall 2023 is 1,476, an increase of 26%.

"These numbers have been consistently very, very positive since we began tracking them," she said. "Although I don't think we're going to end up with 26% more freshman on campus next year than we had this year, I do think it's likely at this point, if trends continue, that we're going to see a real bump."

Mulligan said the new MoState Access Award, available starting in fall 2023, appears to be making a difference. The scholarship covers any part of tuition and fees not covered by other scholarships or the federal Pell grant for eligible students with the greatest financial need.

"It's a really, really big deal," she said. "When we look at our numbers we see a correlation between that strategy and the increased number of students that are going to be on campus next fall."

In the coming months, the university will work on ways to reach adults who are connected to employers and high school graduates who have not considered higher education.

More:New Missouri State scholarship to cover tuition, fees for students with greatest financial need

MSU ramps up efforts to work with employers, students

Brad Bodenhausen, vice president for community and global partnerships, said partnerships with employers are a big focus going forward. He said staff are being hired to help with the process.

Brad Bodenhausen
Brad Bodenhausen

"We've been doing a lot of this behind the scenes and over the course of this semester, we'll be able to unveil that more publicly, externally, and have a more organized approach to how we reach out and make those connections between our academic programs and the employer community," he said.

He said the outreach will be organized by sectors in the region and across the state. "Health care is a natural place to start."

Other areas include hospitality, agriculture, technology and the nonprofit sector.

"There's a lot of areas where we can connect students with the kind of experiences they need through course projects, through early exposure to career paths ... through internships," he said.

The participating employers help ensure students get the skills and experiences that will help them get jobs. He said the involvement will also benefit employers in a competitive job market.

The university has developed a graduate assistant program that is sponsored by employers or community groups. He said it gives students the option of working, in their academic area, beyond campus.

He said it will also offer a "workforce and talent attraction solution" for employers.

Claudette Riley covers education for the News-Leader. Email tips and story ideas to criley@news-leader.com.

This article originally appeared on Springfield News-Leader: Will anti-LGBTQ legislation in MO scare off students? MSU hopes not