Does a school’s enrollment really go down when students protest en masse?

Does a School’s Enrollment Really Go Down When Students Protest En Masse?

Does a School’s Enrollment Really Go Down When Students Protest En Masse?

The state of the universe.
Sept. 12 2017 12:01 PM

Measuring the Mizzou Effect

Does a school’s enrollment really go down when students protest en masse?

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Jonathan Butler (center), a grad student who did a seven-day hunger strike, and others listen during a campus forum at the University of Missouri on Nov. 9, 2015.

Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

Washington’s Evergreen State College, where raucous student protests and disturbing threats of violence made national headlines this spring, has fallen several million dollars in the hole, according to a recent memo from its public administrators. The memo blames the shortfall on both changes in state funding and a 5 percent decline in the school’s enrollment since fall 2016. Right-wing media outlets have another, simpler explanation: They’ve linked the woes at Evergreen to those at the University of Missouri, where a similar bout of campus turmoil in 2015 preceded an enrollment drop. Like Missouri, these sources argue, Evergreen is being punished for giving in to leftist thugs. “SHOCKER: Evergreen State Faces $2.1 MILLION Budget Crisis After Radical Students Go Berserk,” announced the Daily Caller. “Evergreen State College Wakes Up to the Cost of Wokeness,” wrote the website Ricochet. The alleged backlash to modern-day student protests even has a name: They’re calling it the “Mizzou Effect.”

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

If that formulation sounds familiar, that’s because commentators on the right have postulated a constellation of “effects” that purport to show how progressive politics—and race-conscious protests, in particular—are self-defeating and destructive. It began with the “Ferguson Effect,” the theory that protests sparked by the 2014 police shooting of an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Missouri (a few hours’ drive from the University of Missouri campus in Columbia) inspired the nation’s cops to stop policing crime as aggressively, which led murder rates to spike. Then came the “Kaepernick Effect,” which asserts that former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s choice to take a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality against black Americans led to last year’s sag in television ratings for the NFL. Now we have the Mizzou Effect, which says that when schools fail to crack down on student demonstrators, future freshmen feel so unwanted and unsafe that enrollments bottom out and academic budgets fall apart.

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There’s some evidence in support of each of these effects, but lots of evidence against them, too. Certainly none is quite as straightforward or expansive as it’s been claimed to be—and the Mizzou Effect, in particular, suffers from a lack of clear, compelling data.

It’s true enrollment plummeted at the University of Missouri in the fall of 2016, the year after campus protests peaked (and/or reached their nadir), and the school’s president and chancellor were forced to resign. The size of that year’s freshman class declined by 23 percent, and black students seemed especially likely to stay away, with their numbers falling by 42 percent, more than those of any other group. In 2017, the size of Mizzou’s freshman class dwindled again, this time by 16 percent. When combined with unforgiving state budget cuts, this slimming of the student body put the school tens of millions of dollars in the red. The administration has since been forced to cut 400 jobs, increase tuition, and shut down seven dormitories.

Still, fallout from the campus protests is not the only explanation for the university’s plight. College enrollment has been dropping nationwide, and Missouri has seen a shrinking cohort of high school graduates. It doesn’t help that the Missouri men’s basketball and football teams—selling points in years gone by—have been pretty lousy for a while. (That could change soon: The nation’s top basketball prospect, Michael Porter Jr., is about to take the court for Mizzou.) Yet scholars at the university who study the economics of education have little doubt about the central cause of the decline. “It’s clear that the events of Fall 2015 had a huge effect on our reputation and enrollment,” economist Michael Podgursky told me via email.

Still, Podgursky noted that few, if any, empirical studies have been done on the relationship between campus protests and subsequent changes in applications and enrollment, at Missouri or at other schools. It would be interesting to see if there really is a correlation between the two, he said: “Maybe your article will stimulate some research.”

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So we can say with at least some confidence that the Mizzou Effect is real ... at Mizzou. What about everywhere else? It would be surprising if this effect were present to the same degree at a school like Evergreen, which has a pre-existing lefty reputation. (In 2014, Evergreen was voted “America’s most liberal campus.”) Indeed, the school’s administration claims that news about its budget fix has been off the mark. “Our enrollment numbers are more or less what we had expected,” said the school’s beleaguered spokesman, Zach Powers, who started his job just a few weeks before the spring disturbances. Though the total number of students at the school has been slipping since 2009, he added, this year’s in-state enrollment remained fairly steady. “We feel really good about that as a state institution,” Powers said.

The problem is, Evergreen’s allotment of out-of-state students—the ones who sustain its budget by paying the highest tuition fees—appears to have diminished. The memo released two weeks ago says the school has enrolled 212 fewer students for its fall semester than it did a year ago; 210 of those slots had been filled by those from out of state. That makes sense if you assume out-of-towners are the ones who would be most sensitive to Evergreen’s shaky reputation, since they must travel the furthest, and pay the most, to get to campus. On the other hand, out-of-state applications had fallen off before any of the bad PR from student protests, said Evergreen’s director of admissions, Eric Pedersen. He guessed that may be due to changing rules at California’s public universities, where more spots have been reserved for in-state residents. In any case, Pedersen’s numbers from mid-May—a couple of weeks ahead of the campus strife—indicate Evergreen was already looking at a 31 percent drop in out-of-state freshman enrollees.

Still, the numbers for incoming freshmen may be misleading, since, as Pedersen explained, about 95 percent of those first-year students had committed to the school before the protests started. More relevant is the fact that transfers into Evergreen did tail off throughout the summer. In June, the school projected a 3 percent decrease in this transfer pool, compared with the same point in 2016, but the projected shortfall had grown to 14.5 percent by August. Those numbers are indeed suggestive of a Mizzou Effect, though its scope is limited, and the data are somewhat tricky to interpret.

Meanwhile, other schools that suffered through bitter and well-covered student demonstrations have shown at most tiny indications of a Mizzou Effect, and no consistent pattern overall. When Ithaca College experienced massive protests in November 2015, for example, and the subsequent resignation of its president, the media wondered whether it would be “the next Missouri.” Applications for its 2016 freshman class did go down by 13 percent from the year before while freshman enrollees declined by 10 percent. Yet those numbers had been even worse in 2014, the year before the tumult.

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Similar data emerge from California’s Claremont McKenna College, where an activist campaign in November 2015 forced the dean of students to resign. The incoming class in 2016 was 7 percent smaller than it had been the year before but almost exactly the same size as the one from 2014.

A few schools even seem to provide evidence of a Reverse Mizzou Effect. In early May, Middlebury College announced its incoming class would be one of its largest ever, and the most diverse it’s ever had. That was just a few months after its students drew widespread coverage and scorn for violently disrupting a talk by the author of The Bell Curve, Charles Murray. A closer look at the numbers complicates the story, though: The school’s expected yield—i.e., the proportion of accepted students who would choose to enroll at the college—had actually dropped by 1.2 percent from 2016. But then again, the yield at Middlebury was lower still in 2015.

Data on the Mizzou Effect appear to be equivocal, but there’s nothing new about the theory. During the college protests of the 1960s and early 1970s, administrators were warned that angry parents might pull their children out of schools with rampant protest movements, according to Chris Broadhurst, a historian of student activism who’s based out of the University of New Orleans. Whether those parents really acted on their threats en masse is another question.

Clearly there were repercussions from the savage violence at Kent State University in May 1970, when members of the Ohio National Guard shot and killed four students protesting the Vietnam War and injured nine more. While enrollment at the school had just hit a record high of 21,000 students, those numbers quickly dropped. A New York Times article from 1971 noted that the school had just endured a 47.7 percent decrease in applications, a loss it attributed to “the state of the economy and campus unrest—in that order.” The effect had gone away by 1975, but Kent State would see another drop-off in enrollment a few years later, when plans to build a gymnasium near the site of the shootings led to further protests.

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Yet there was little sign of a Mizzou Effect, or something like it, in the broader sense, even as unrest spread across the nation’s campuses. For a 1971 report from the Carnegie Commission, researchers asked 2,500 college presidents how the Vietnam protests and fallout from Kent State had affected their schools. Just a small percentage cited “loss of alumni and public support” as the most significant outcome. And Broadhurst points out that college enrollment more than doubled in the 1960s, despite the vibrant protest culture.

It’s hard enough to get a handle on these sorts of statistical effects in enrollment ex post facto, said Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. Doing so in real time is pretty much impossible. “I don’t think we can dismiss the potential causality [of the Mizzou Effect],” he told me. “There’s no question that campus turmoil of any kind is not a selling point for parents.” But if the effect exists, he’s inclined to think that its amplitude would vary greatly from one institution to another and that its duration would be short, as a rule. It’s likely to be little more than a “hiccup,” he said.

Something similar could be said of the other racial backlash “effects” favored by the right-wing media: They’re more like hiccups than convulsions. While national murder rates are still very low in historical terms, recent trends in many major cities have indeed been alarming, and it’s not totally absurd to theorize that this could be, in part, a function of worsening relations between police departments and civilians. But the Ferguson Effect, if that’s what you want to call it, seems to show up in some places but not others, and for reasons that remain unclear.

Similarly, one could argue that the Kaepernick Effect is real and that football players’ protests did contribute in some minor way to last year’s 8 percent decline in the NFL’s television audience. The chairman of CBS Sports said as much a few weeks ago, citing proprietary evidence from his network’s own research on viewers. But how important was this factor in the ratings? “I don’t really know,” he said. Earlier that week, an executive at Fox Sports had said he didn’t believe there was any correlation.

Of course, these effects—which are supposed to demonstrate a backlash from a silent, white majority—have always been more rhetorical than data-driven. Even the names of the effects are more tendentious than descriptive. It may be true that the degradation of relations between police departments and civilians leads to higher homicide rates. But when you refer to this as the “Ferguson Effect,” you imply that the protesters (and they alone) are where this causal chain begins. Wouldn’t it make as much sense—or more—to describe this as the “Darren Wilson Effect,” or the “Killing Unarmed Black Men Effect”? Same goes for the “Kaepernick Effect,” which puts the onus for a ratings drop on one unfairly unemployed quarterback when the same correlation in the data could fairly be rebranded as the “Racist Football Fan Effect.”

When right-wing outlets say that the “Mizzou Effect” has come to Evergreen State College, they’re imposing a politically motivated conceit on a bed of flimsy data. If we summarized the facts a different way—if we put the focus on the crackdown at Kent State, for example, instead of the lack of one at Mizzou—then the same association, fearful-freshman-flee-from-fuss, would be understood to have a different meaning. It’s not “the cost of wokeness” that’s the problem. It’s the cost of never giving in.

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