Looking cool and relaxed in a black Bearcats polo shirt and slacks, Northwest Missouri State University President John Jasinski bore the welcoming smile of a gracious host Thursday morning as hundreds of new freshman rolled onto campus for Move-In Day.
Overcast, rain-free skies touched with blue here and there added to a carnival-like atmosphere as students and parents unloaded tightly packed cars, SUVs and pickup trucks filled clothes, stereos, tennis rackets, television sets and mini-refrigerators.
As always when the new freshman arrive in late August, they were greeted by gangs of smiling, T-shirted upperclassmen — known as the 'Cat Crew — who helped gather belongings by the pushcart-load and roll them into residence halls.
Once inside, bed lofts were screwed together, boxes were unpacked, iPads were switched on, forms were signed and beds were made, often with moms and dads looking a little awkward while trying to be helpful and stay out of the way at the same time.
"It's a perfect day, a great day for our community" said Jasinski, who spent much of the pleasantly cool morning walking the campus and greeting the newest crop of Bearcats.
The president's sunny outlook was understandable because, once again, the campus is filling up — and that's good news in a town where students fuel a major chunk of the economy.
Preliminary fall enrollment totals aren't setting any records, but the predicted drop-off, caused by a sharp decline in the number of high school students across northwest Missouri, is apparently less than university officials had feared.
The final census won't be available until sometime next month, but Jasinski said he expected about 1,300 freshmen to check in before the end of the week. He added that while overall enrollment may be down somewhat from last year's 6,500 students, the number of credit hours those students sign up for could actually increase.
That bodes well for Northwest's fiscal outlook, since tuition is paid by the credit hour and not per student.
"We have been concerned about declining enrollment," Jasinski said, "but the numbers look pretty solid compared to last year."
The president speculated that the last-minute bump in freshman enrollment may be due to families putting off decisions about college because of economic uncertainty and a growing list of higher education options as institutions compete for every available student.
Northwest, for example, has beefed up out-of-state recruiting with a program called "Bearcat Advantage," which essentially offers in-state tuition to qualified students regardless of their home address.
Besides anticipated better-than-hoped-for enrollment, Jasinski has other reasons to be excited about the 2013-'14 academic year, which started off with a $1.25 million unrestricted estate bequest through the Northwest Foundation.
The gift helps set the stage for a multi-million-dollar capital campaign that Jasinski's administrative team, along with foundation officials and the Board of Regents, have been working to organize for some time.
Page 2 of 2 - Jasinski said Thursday the foundation signed off on the fundraising campaign in July, and that the "silent phase" of the initiative has, in effect, begun.
The public drive won't get underway for a year or two, but Jasinski expects between 50 and 70 percent of the sought-after donations and pledges to be in hand before any official announcement is made.
Now that the new freshmen are back in town they will spend the rest of the week picking up computers and textbooks, going to orientation sessions and attending various social gatherings.
As has long been a Northwest tradition, the academic year officially begins Sunday afternoon with a freshman convocation in Bearcat Arena. Jasinski said the event is being expanded this year to include a student march that will proceed beneath the campus' iconic Memorial Bell Tower and end with an ice cream social on the Administration Building lawn.