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With New Plan, MSU-West Plains Addresses Unique Challenges to Serve Rural Student Population

Nestled in the heart of south-central Missouri, the campus of Missouri State University in West Plains caters to just over 2,000 students per semester. The campus has seen a 40 percent increase in enrollment over the past five years, while state funding has either dropped or remained flat. The campus has just released a new long-range plan. KSMU’s Jennifer Davidson sat down with the chancellor of MSU-West Plains to find out more about his vision, and about the unique challenges the school faces.

Reporter standup:  "Right now, I’m standing on the indoor track in the arena of the West Plains Civic Center. One of the priorities in the new, long-range plan is for the college to maintain an open admissions policy.  Basically, if you want to come to school here at MSU-West Plains, you don’t need to worry about your ACT scores. The arena is empty at the moment, but the chancellor of West Plains, Dr. Drew Bennett, says back in May, he stood in this spot and addressed the graduates before him."

“It’s a huge crowd, filling the arena to capacity, and I ask, ‘Would all of the graduates who are first generation college students raise your hand?’ And it was a sea of hands.  Virtually everybody was a first year college student. Well, making this an open-admission campus provides access to them,” he said.

One challenge of having an open admissions policy is that you can’t bank on students knowing how to study, or take good notes.  So the university here invests time and money into just getting those students up to a college level standard.

But Bennett and his team here are trying to do more than raise enrollment and graduation rates; here in south-central Missouri, where the US Census Bureau says one in every four families makes less than 25,000 a year in total household income, they’re hoping to change the economic landscape through education.

Almost 50 percent of the students who graduate from high school here do not go onto college. So, the university has created something of a mentor program that builds on the handful of recruiters it already has.

“If we can leverage that and have the entire community help in our recruiting effort by just doing this:  Ask high school students, ‘What are you going to do when you graduate from high school.’  Half of them are going to say, ‘I don’t know.’ And to that half, you should say, ‘You should go to Missouri State University-West Plains. Let me put you in contact with Missouri State,’” he said.

He says he can measure in the tens of millions of dollars the economic impact the university has had on this region—from the higher earnings graduates make, to the spending they generate, to the taxes they pay. 

“But if you take it one step further, to the student who is walking across the stage, who has broken the cycle of poverty, and is able to get a higher paying job, and has broken that cycle not only for them, but many of our students are single parents or working parents—and has broken it for the next generation as well—the impact is priceless,” Bennett said.

40 percent of the students at MSU-West Plains are non-traditional students—they have families, or full-time jobs. So, another part of the long-term plan is to dive more into online courses.  One challenge, though, is internet access in rural areas—something that the state and private industry are working on here. Bennett says MSU-West Plains hopes to soon put some entire degree programs online.

MSU-WP has been selected by the Aspen Institute for two years in a row as being within the top 10 percent of all 2-year schools in the country.

The long-range plan was recently approved at a MSU Board of Governors meeting, held in West Plains.

For KSMU News, I’m Jennifer Davidson.

LINKS:  MSU-WP Long Range Plan