The University Name & Enrollment

One key motivation for the decision to move forward with the renaming process is to help improve enrollment at the University. In this section, we’ll explain our enrollment processes and look at the real enrollment numbers, both recently and over the last several decades.

We will also show how the university has struggled with the single-gender identity for more than a decade before Hogan v. MUW, and how that identity continues to constrain us with certain legal requirements to this day. We’ll also show the declining interest in perceived single-gender institutions using data from our university and others.

Finally, we'd like to give you a look at the recruitment landscape we will face over the next 10 years and the concern that keeps us up at night: The Demographic Cliff.

Part I: University Enrollment

The university uses two different terms when we talk about recruitment and enrollment: Unduplicated Headcount and Full Time Equivalent (FTE). The difference between these two is how we count students.

What is Unduplicated Headcount?

Just like it sounds, Unduplicated Headcount is a census of the student body. Each student counts once, regardless of whether they take 1 hour or 18 hours.

What is FTE?

We consider a student taking 12 credit hours as a 1 FTE student. Likewise, we count two students taking 6 hours each count as 1 FTE student, and a student taking 18 hours as 1.5 FTE. FTE is a standardized metric for comparing academic years and different institutions more accurately.

Unduplicated Headcount is the metric often used in the news when they discuss enrollment. Full Time Equivalent is the metric the IHL uses when considering funding for the universities.

Current Enrollment Data

A census of students

The first thing you'll notice is the significant drop in recent years. A good portion of that is the Pandemic. Between Fall of 2019 and Fall of 2021, enrollment fell nearly 12%. We lost 25-30 years of growth in two years.

But you'll notice the enrollment trend started long before the pandemic. The university today is 6.5% smaller than it was in 2012.

Chart: Unduplicated Headcount over 10 years shows significant decline since 2016.

Now let’s look at the Unduplicated Headcount from the last 40 years. Enrollment has gone up, but not that much. In the last 42 years, the university has only grown 7.4%.

Chart: Unduplicated Headcount 1979-2021 shows growth from 2307 to 2477 over forty three years

Counting the Hours

You probably also noticed that huge jump in enrollment in the 1990s. Is it proof the university was growing at an astonishing rate?

Well, when we look at FTE, we see the mountain disappear. What happened? The high headcount and lower FTE means there are a lot of students taking only a few classes. This trend aligns with a time when the university encouraged all members of the staff to take classes as part of employee professional development.

Chart: FTE 1979-2021 shows growth from 1772 to 1995 over forty three years

Looking at the FTE over the same 40 years, you'll notice it grows much more than the unduplicated headcount. Why is that? Well, students are taking more credit hours. A student is full time with 12 hours, but these days the State requires students to enroll in at least 15 hours to qualify for state financial aid. The university enrolls more transfer students. Some transfer students will take an extra course or two to cover classes they couldn't get at a community college. Because of the changing makeup of the student body and higher expectations we put on them, each of these students now counts as more than one FTE student from 40 years ago.

When we look at the last ten years, our FTE is declining. Since 2012, FTE has dropped by 12%. Some of the decline can is pandemic-related, but the trend is steady over the entire decade.

But the FTE is up, almost 12% since 1979. That's good, right? FTE is used to compare universities, so let’s compare our FTE growth to our neighbor MSU. Over the same 40 years, their FTE increased by 92% and the state's flagship, UM, saw ten times the growth we did.

Chart: FTE over 10 years shows gradual decline over entire decade.

Comparing Universities

It hardly seems fair to compare our university to the state flagship though, so let’s look at all the public universities in Mississippi. The public universities in the state fall into two categories: major national universities and smaller regional universities. The major universities are the schools you'll see on TV every Saturday: UM, MSU, USM, and JSU. They have large graduate programs and conduct grant funded research. Where the national universities focus on research, regional universities focus on teaching. In Mississippi, the regional universities are Alcorn, Delta, Mississippi Valley, and us.

When we compare all the universities, we see a trend. Over the last 40 years, the major universities have grown exponentially while the regional universities have remained flat.

Chart: FTE at all public universities 1981 to 2021. Major universities grow with state population, small universities do not.

We’re glad we are The Freshman Class! What class?

While we’re discussing enrollment, there’s one more trend we'd like you to see: The Freshmen.

As much as the upperclassmen love to razz on the freshmen, they are the lifeblood of the university and we all know it. Studies have shown repeatedly that this group of students is the most involved in co‐curricular activities, live on campus, and carry on campus traditions. Without freshmen, our university traditions are slowly disappearing.

As much as the upperclassmen love to razz on the freshmen, they are the lifeblood of the university and we all know it. Studies have shown repeatedly that this group of students is the most involved in co‐curricular activities, live on campus, and carry on campus traditions. Without freshmen, our university traditions are slowly disappearing.

These students also tend to be the most engaged alumni after graduating. Which makes sense, they've spent the most time on campus of any other segment of students.

Over the last 30 years, the first time, full-time freshmen (what we'd commonly call traditional freshmen) dropped a staggering 37.7%.

This trend is accelerating, and the pandemic didn’t help. Our freshman class dropped 40.6% in the last five years. We no longer have enough freshmen for Freshman Serenade. Today we bring in transfer students to tradition, but they’re less receptive to class songs.

If we can’t correct this course we’ve been on for 30 years, we may soon have a year without freshmen. A year without singing in the cafeteria, without social club marches.

Chart: Freshmen Unduplicated Headcount 2012-2021 shows steep decline from 278 in 2016 to 165 by 2021.

Traditions are delicate things. If no one is there to carry them on, they will be gone forever.

None of us want that to happen.

Seven students in gym displaying W hand sign
Students hold hands during Mag Chain ceremony
Stone Archway, Old Maid's Gate, with flowers behind

PART II: Gender Inclusion

A common refrain we hear when we talk about gender inclusion on campus goes, “If they don’t like it, they can go somewhere else!”

They are.

This is our university’s problem. Students are choosing to attend other universities instead of MUW. And who is choosing not to attend our university might surprise you.

When we look at the Unduplicated Headcount for the last 30 years we see the male enrollment has remained stagnant, only shifting 50-100 students either direction since 1989. We should make it clear, it’s not good to see enrollment in a segment of students is unchanged since the late 80s.

Chart: Unduplicated Headcount by Gender 1991 to 2021 shows declining female enrollment and flat male enrollment over 30 years.

However, looking at female enrollment at the university over the same period, we see something else entirely. Our female student population is falling.

We can’t reiterate this enough: Female enrollment at Mississippi University for Women has been in a steady decline for three decades.

If you follow national trends for single-gender institutions and perceived single-gender institutions, this isn’t a surprise to you. In the 1960s there were 298 women’s colleges. Today, that number is fewer than 50, and many of those have coeducational graduate programs and male day students to bolster enrollment.

20% of the schools
we were compared to in 2008
no longer exist.

In 2008, when the university last considered a name change, our consulting group identified 45 colleges and universities that were either all-female or perceived as all-female. Back then, the headline was that each of these schools was private except The W. Fourteen years later, the headline is different. One in five of the perceived single-gender institutions researchers compared our university to in 2008 have either closed, merged with another university, or listed as “likely to perish”.

Why do we use the term “perceived single-gender institutions”? Much like MUW, many of the colleges still thought of as “all-girls schools” have gone co-educational.

National research shows only 3% of college-age women want to attend a single-gender college. And 0% of men believe they can attend a perceived all-girls college. With about 1 in 5 students on our campus being men, those interested in an all-girls college experience would quickly realize we couldn’t provide one.

ARTICLE: A Place for Women's Colleges PDF: 2009 Eduventures Report

Our university commissioned a survey of prospective students. The study showed 50% of prospective students in the state of Mississippi believed MUW to be an all-women’s university. Among students outside the state, this number jumped to almost 80% of all prospective students.

Our own records show only 4% of Mississippi high school seniors taking the ACT listed MUW among their top six college choices. Of all Mississippi prospective students—male or female—96% express no interest in the Mississippi University for Women brand.

The MUW Brand Carries a Legal Hindrance

Did you know the name of Mississippi University for Women has been legally challenged in federal court? No, we’re not talking about that case. Most people know about Hogan v. Mississippi University for Women. It’s a landmark legal decision that ended up being used to help women enroll in previously all-male institutions. Fewer people know about Washington v. Mississippi University for Women.

PDF: Washington v. MUW

While Hogan challenged the university policies on admitting men, Washington stated that the name of the institution itself discriminated against men. The university agreed to a consent decree in 1991 which requires the university to include specific wording on all recruiting and marketing materials to state explicitly that the university is co-educational. To this day, by law, we can not mention Mississippi University for Women on recruitment brochures with also including “coeducational since 1982”.

A long time coming

Still fewer realize the university’s discussions about gender inclusion on campus date well before the 1982 Supreme Court decision. In the 1970s, before the last time we changed our name, President Charles Hogarth identified the single-gender identity of MSCW as a factor hindering growth. In 1971, Hogarth surveyed students on three possibilities: keep the college all-female, admit men in a limited capacity as day-students, or become fully coeducational. We know the results of the survey. The university wouldn’t admit men until mandated to do so a decade later.

What the Hogarth Coeducational Survey does show is the university has considered the single-gender identity a hindrance to growth for at least the last 50 years.

Since the 1970s, we’ve seen the issue of gender inclusion raised once per decade: The Hogarth Survey in 1971; the Supreme Court decision in 1982; the Consent Decree in 1991; the Reneau Naming Attempt in 2008; a long and painful dispute with some alumnae, ending in 2012; and today’s consideration at the request of the Dean’s Council.

Each time, the university knew the name and single-gender identity of the institution were a hindrance to growth. Over the last fifty years the university's enrollment slowed then began to decline.

Dr. Charles Hogarth
two men and two women outside
Owls men's basketball team huddle during game
Male nursing student in simulation lab

PART III: Future Enrollment Landscape

Enrollment Cliff

Our university is 175 years old, we’ve gone through tough times before, we’ll continue to grow in the future. Right?

Here’s the part that keeps us up at night.

For the last decade, administrators in higher education have been acutely aware of an important fact: Gen X, and later Millennials, do not have as many children as their parents. Since the Baby Boom of the 1940s, there has been an ever-growing number of children being born in the United States. More children being born meant more children in the schools, which meant more students graduating from high school, which meant more prospective students for colleges. Did you ever feel like the schools just built never seemed large enough for all the students? It’s the same issue.

About 15 years ago the Baby Boom went bust. The number of children being born fell precipitously and has not recovered. This has sent ripples throughout the education sector. We have known for some time that the Fall of 2025 will mark a significant drop in college age students. Higher education administrators refer to this event as the Demographic Cliff.

Chart: US high school graduation rates real and project 2016-2031 shows a steep drop after 2025.

Based on the number of children currently enrolled in K-12 in Mississippi, we know that between 2022 and 2032 the number of high school graduates will drop 24%. This trend is playing out across the country.

Chart: Real and projected high school graduation rates between 2016 and 2031 drop sharply

A One-Two Punch

Until a few years ago, the date circled on everyone’s calendar was Fall 2025. But projections never considered a global pandemic would shut down schools across the country and cause irreparable harm to the academic progress of millions. The front edge of the Demographic Cliff collapsed. Students who may have gone on to graduate instead dropped out. Promising middle schoolers in 2019 are now severely behind their counterparts from just a few years earlier as they enter high school. Three years’ worth of students never took the ACT or SAT and missed out on scholarships. We are now faced with fewer college-age students and many are not college-ready.

The demographic cliff won’t just harm the Freshman classes. Fewer high school graduates also mean fewer students entering community colleges, which means fewer transfer students. Most our incoming students transfer to our university from a community college. On average, our university enrolls five transfer students for each freshman.

We, and higher ed administrators across the country, anticipate a second significant drop in prospective students about two years after the first, this time with fewer community college transfers.

Chart: Mississippi high school graduation rates 2012-2021 shows a steep decline after 2018.

A crowded market

Fewer traditional freshmen and transfer students available to recruit is only one part of the equation when we look at recruitment and enrollment. We also need to look at the competition.

Recent national studies show 75% of prospective students prefer to attend a college or university within two hours of their home. From our own data, we know most students we enroll live within sixty miles of campus.

ARTICLE: Backgrounds & Beliefs of College Freshmen ARTICLE: Where Does Your Freshman Class Come From?

Map: 60 mile radius around MUW shows three colleges

Within that 60-mile radius, we have Mississippi State University (enrollment: 23,086) and East Mississippi Community College (enrollment: 3,386). Just as our university now offers degrees online, students in the immediate area have access to an ever-growing list of online universities. The US Department of Education lists 60 colleges and universities which cover the region. Our university now also competes for students in our own backyard with the likes of Penn State, University of Florida, and Arizona State.

EXPLORE: Department of Education College Map

When we extend the radius to 150 miles to encompass 75% of our prospective students, we compete against 54 physical campuses—including The University of Mississippi (enrollment: 21,203), The University of Alabama (enrollment: 38,316), University of Alabama-Birmingham (enrollment: 22,289). Along with the online colleges and universities, our institution competes directly for local students against 110 different colleges and universities in the region.

EXPLORE: Mississippi 2020 Census Profile

Map: 150 mile radius around MUW shows 54 college campuses

The only avenue for growth

In August 2022, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article “The Shrinking of Higher Ed”. Author Karin Fischer explains the difference between the national decline expected in the next decade and previous eras of decline. In short: There are no avenues left to tap. In the 1940s, GIs entered colleges and universities en masse. In the 50s and 60s, universities bolstered enrollment by recruiting women. In the 1970s and 1980s, federal financial aid brought lower-income students to colleges and universities. In the 1990s and 2000s, international students supported enrollment growth. And following the last recession, colleges and universities turned to online education to reach out to place-bound and distance education students. The problem this time around, for most universities, there is no new market to tap into.

The Chronicle article divides colleges and universities into groups: Major Flagship Public Universities (think Ole Miss and Mississippi State); Heritage Private Colleges (think Harvard or Yale); Regional Public Universities (like us); and Small Private Colleges (think Blue Mountain College).

Heritage Private Colleges will recruit enough students based on prestige alone. Students want to go to Harvard or Yale because they are Harvard or Yale.

Small Private Colleges are struggling to maintain enrollment. Since 2016, Higher Ed Dive has identified 81 small colleges, some over 100-years-old, which have closed or merged with larger institutions.

ARTICLE: Colleges & Universities closed since 2016

Regional Public Universities will struggle to find new student populations to recruit. Tight budgets and limited national brand identity will cause these institutions to fight over smaller and smaller pools of prospects. They do not expect many Regional Public Universities to withstand the next ten years.

And then there are the Major Flagship Public Universities. Much like Regional Public Universities, these publics will fight over smaller and small pools of prospective students. However, with significant national branding from athletics and endowments in the billions of dollars, Major Flagship Public Universities have one segment left they can target: Students who would otherwise attend a small university. Flagships have enough resources to outspend smaller publics on recruitment and scholarships per student every time. Their strategy will coalesce around market dominance.

This strategy has already started. Flagship Public Universities have announced record freshman recruitment classes for Fall 2022, including: University of Mississippi; University of Alabama; University of Tennessee; Louisiana State University; University of Georgia; and the University of Arkansas. Both the University of Florida and Florida State University saw a record number of applications, but have mandated caps on the number of freshmen they can enroll.

ARTICLE: The Shrinking of Higher Ed

It all leads here

As you can see, there’s a lot to consider when we’re talking about recruitment and enrollment numbers. Here’s what we can say for certain:

  • The university’s unduplicated headcount has been declining for three decades.
  • This trend is driven by fewer women applying to the university and no growth among men.
  • Only 3% of prospective female students are interested in a perceived single-gender university.
  • 80% of students outside the state, and 50% in the state, believe Mississippi University for Women is a women-only university.
  • 20% of the perceived single-gender institutions we were compared to a decade ago are now closed.
  • Only 4% of high school seniors in Mississippi show any interest in Mississippi University for Women.
  • The number of high school students graduating in Mississippi will nosedive over the next ten years.
  • Flagship universities will put forward more resources to recruit the fewer remaining students, even if it means stealing students from smaller universities.
  • For the last 50 years, university officials have known the women-only brand hinders recruitment efforts.
  • Federal courts have ruled that the women-only admissions practices were unconstitutional and have determined the “for Women” name is discriminatory. As long as the university remains Mississippi University for Women, we are legally required to include a statement that we have admitted men since 1982.
  • Male enrollment has not increased in any significant way since late 1980s.
  • 96% of prospective students have no interest in attending an institution named Mississippi University for Women.
Callaway Clocktower at sunset, the sky vivid pinks and purples