In a lot of instances, reporters are not doing much reporting. I’ve noticed — and admittedly my evidence is largely anecdotal — that many papers are treating it as a straight numbers story and taking what the school feeds them and adding little else. That is a shame.
While the official enrollment census numbers are what they are, there are often more interesting stories below the surface. I always encourage my students to look for the “so what” and “what now” angles to stories. And enrollment stories have those.
Let’s take a look at two vastly different schools. Granted, I worked in southwest Missouri for years, so I kind of follow these. But let’s look for a bit at Missouri State University in Springfield and Crowder College in Neosho.
According to a Sept. 25 story in The Standard, Missouri State set a record for enrollment this fall.
“The Missouri State University Fall 2012 Census showed that enrollment is at a record high at the Springfield campus with 21,059 students, a 1.24 percent increase from 20,802 students in 2011,” the paper reports.
The news is also good at Crowder. According to a Sept. 3 story in The Sentry, that two-year colleges enrollment grew nearly 4 percent and set yet another record for headcount. In fact, Crowder passed neighbor Missouri Southern State University in total enrollment for the first time ever.
In fact MSSU’s enrollment was down this fall. The school’s administration cites the May 2011 tornado’s after effects as being a factor. That makes sense, but what is the story here? Why is MSSU lagging and MSU and Crowder are packing them in?
This isn’t a knock on MSSU. It is just a legitimate news angle. Where are the students coming from in Springfield and Neosho? Are they making inroads in certain areas? If a businessperson has a growing firm, they want to know where that growth is coming from. Academic institutions should want to know as well.
And if I were a reporter at MSSU, I would want to know if the tornado hangover is still hampering enrollment. If so, why? And when might those factors begin to dissipate? How long has it taken colleges in other places facing similar disasters to bounce back?
Here is some information on the last question. In April 2011, a devastating tornado hit Tuscaloosa, Ala. Tuscaloosa is a college town, home of the University of Alabama. How has enrollment at the university fared in the time since?
The university set a record for enrollment this fall.
The point is this: Enrollment stories are not just about the black and white on a census spreadsheet. What is behind those numbers? What is driving those numbers for good or not so good? These are the kind of enrollment stories that get the attention of national awards judges and — most importantly — hiring editors.