OTL: Applications to Michigan State tumble

Undergraduate applications to Michigan State University fell by 8.3 percent over the past year amid the scandal involving former Spartan physician and associate professor Larry Nassar and the school’s handling of sexual assault allegations involving athletes.

MSU’s applications for the fall of 2018 dropped by about 3,000, to 33,129 — a contrast to rising higher-education applications nationwide and among most of MSU’s peer institutions in the Big Ten Conference.

Ahead of the Nassar sexual assault allegations first appearing in the media — in an Indianapolis Star article in 2016 — applications to the university had increased steadily for seven years, according to an enrollment report released in October. But applications for fall 2017 showed a 3.6 percent decline.

During the 2017-18 academic year, when Nassar was on trial, attention began to focus on how Michigan State officials had handled the allegations against him. At Nassar’s sentencing hearing in January, many of the 156 women and girls who read victim-impact statements called out MSU officials for not taking more action to stop Nassar.

The scandal led to the forced resignation in January of then-university president Lou Anna Simon, who now faces criminal charges of lying to investigators. A few days later, athletic director Mark Hollis retired just a few hours before ESPN’s Outside the Lines reported about how athletic officials had handled multiple allegations of sexual violence involving student-athletes.

David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy with the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said Michigan State’s 8.3 percent application decline is unusual for an institution that has such strong brand recognition and degree programs that are in demand by prospective students.

“As a parent … you look at the culture of a school and you determine, ‘How comfortable will I feel with my son or daughter at this institution?’ … It’s possible that certainly student-athletes, particularly women, might not feel particularly supported in light of what’s happened at Michigan State,” Hawkins said. “Michigan State has had a very difficult time dealing with this issue.”

MSU spokeswoman Emily Guerrant attributed the application declines to demographic shifts in Michigan and the Midwest: a lower number of high school graduating seniors, low birth rates and migration during the last recession, as well as a decline in applications by international students due to changes in federal visa and immigration processes.

Over the same time period, other Big Ten schools on average saw a 4.7 percent increase in applicants, with rival Michigan seeing 9.7 percent more applications. Among the five next-largest public schools in Michigan, two saw applications increase by 19 or more percent; two saw a drop of less than 5 percent; and Eastern Michigan declined 13.2 percent. Penn State was not included in the Outside the Lines analysis for 2018 because a spokesperson said its application number is not yet available.

In a March media release, Michigan State touted its incoming freshman class of 8,442 students for 2018-19 as “the largest and most diverse in the school’s history.” The university admitted a larger percentage of the students who applied to reach the record number, however; for the fall of 2018, the admission percentage was 77.7 percent, up from 65.7 percent in 2016, and is MSU’s highest accepted-student percentage in a decade.

“MSU recognizes that while we have a record-setting class this year, we will need to step up our recruitment efforts in the future to continue welcoming strong class sizes to the university,” Guerrant said.

College and university application numbers can be affected by a host of factors, from on-field athletic success that leads to application boosts, to the type of application forms used, to scandals that can have a profound and negative impact.

A Harvard Business School research paper highlighted the scandal correlation after researchers analyzed the effect of 124 public scandals on the nation’s top 100 colleges and universities from 2001 to 2013. Although researchers saw a correlation between scandals and lower application numbers, co-author Jonathan Smith, an assistant professor of economics at Georgia State University, said MSU’s 8.3 percent decline was uncommonly high.

“That’s a lot. It is not common to have such a big drop,” Smith said. “The average scandal, the impacts on applications were somewhat modest. It was the really big ones that were really present in the media that had pretty large effects on applications.”

The numbers put MSU on par with well-known scandals such as the sexual abuse case involving former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky at Penn State, which was followed by a 10.5 percent decline in applicants to the main campus after the scandal became publicized in 2012. A Penn State spokesperson told Outside the Lines that was not the sole reason for a decline in applications for the fall of 2013, that “there are multiple reasons for the ebb and flow of the admissions cycle.”

The University of Missouri saw a 22.5 percent decline in applications from fall 2016 to 2017, according to enrollment data collected by Outside the Lines. That drop of nearly 5,000 students followed student protests over race and other issues on Missouri’s campus in 2015.

At Baylor University, a sexual assault scandal involving football players that started in fall 2015 came to a head in spring 2016 with the firing of head football coach Art Briles, the demotion of then-president Kenneth Starr, who would later resign, and the suspension and resignation of athletic director Ian McCaw. Yet Baylor’s applications for fall 2017 showed an increase of about 7 percent. Baylor, however, had switched that year to what is known as the Common Application, a streamlined process that allows students to fill out one form and apply to multiple schools at a time, which almost always leads to an increased number of applications for the schools that adopt it.

Michigan State began using the Common Application on Aug. 1.

Smith said that most schools that showed a decline after a scandal tended to rebound after a few years. He cited two factors: students who tend to make decisions based on “small pieces of information” right in front of them, instead of issues that happened a few years ago, and universities working to combat negative media coverage and improve recruitment.

Hawkins also said that at schools with strong national brands, people’s loyalty to the institution, including athletics, can supersede or mitigate the effect of a scandal on attracting new students.

“I think that’s kind of the underlying reason why a lot of scandals might be a blip on major universities’ radar screens and then resolve themselves after a year or two,” Hawkins said. “[MSU’s] just seems to be a little more metastasized.”

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