COLUMBUS — Nora Miller, the president of Mississippi University for Women, opened a letter from her deans in 2022 that warned the country’s first state-supported women’s college had reached a critical crossroads. 

Without bold change, the deans wrote, the pool of prospective students was “likely to grow dangerously thin,” affecting tuition. Their recommendation: Change the name to one that includes all students, not just women. After all, the university had been co-ed since 1982. One consulting firm, three listening sessions, 4,300 survey responses, one failed proposal, and one apology later, MUW will ask lawmakers to approve a new name next month. But as the institution seeks to reposition itself to meet an uncertain moment for higher education in Mississippi, it has faced criticism from some alumni, passionate about the past, who have questioned if a new name is needed at all. 

Lost in the hullabaloo is the fact MUW faces much bigger issues than its name, according to more than a dozen interviews Mississippi Today conducted with students, faculty, administrators and alumni.

Enrollment has continued to fall since the dean’s letter. All told, the campus has shrunk to just 2,227 students from its peak of more than 3,100 in the late 1990s. The tuition-dependent university has been operating at a deficit, losing $18 million in fiscal year 2022, not counting appropriations. And it likely can’t turn to the state for help: Mississippi’s state funding for higher education has barely recovered from the Great Recession of 2008. The liberal arts education that MUW offers is increasingly pooh-poohed by lawmakers and other state officials who view workforce development as “the message of the day.” 

To be sure, all of Mississippi’s regional colleges are struggling, so MUW’s plight isn’t totally unique. But within thirty miles of its doorstep, MUW is facing a hydra — a behemoth SEC school, a booming industrial park and a flourishing community college — all while dealing with a name that excludes roughly half of the students it wants to admit. 

“It’s kind of like false advertising, isn’t it?” said Dee Anne Larson, a marketing professor on the university’s naming committee. 

The university has acknowledged it needs to do a better job of selling what it offers: Comparatively affordable tuition, small class sizes and a familial campus. It has revamped its recruitment strategies, brought back athletics and pumped money into professional programs like culinary arts, speech language pathology and nursing. 

“While we would prefer not running at a deficit,” Miller said, “sometimes you have to invest in things.” 

Signs of that investment, though, are hard to spot. North on Highway 25, a brick sign for Starkville brags of being the “home of Mississippi State University.” Over the Lowndes County line, at the Golden Triangle Global Industrial Aerospace Park, is East Mississippi Community College’s glassy “communiversity” and its LED marquee. 

The sign for Columbus, called the “friendly city,” makes no mention of MUW. The university employs hundreds of people in the region, a fact belied by its quiet presence. 

Miller acknowledged workforce development programs entice high school graduates. But, she said, when younger workers from Steel Dynamics get tired, they’ll start looking for a pathway to office jobs. 

“And I think some of those steelworkers aren’t gonna take advantage of that” at MUW, Miller said, “because ‘Mississippi University for Women’ will be on their degree.” 

Cutting ties with the long blue line? 

When MUW sent Miller an offer letter in 1979, she thought it was for a “finishing school” and threw it in the trash. Her mom convinced Miller, a National Merit Scholarship semifinalist, to take a second look. 

MUW President Nora Miller said the university needs to change its name in order to attract a wider net of students than women. Credit: Molly Minta/Mississippi Today

Three years later, when the Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees ordered MUW to admit men following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the university’s admissions policy, Miller’s first thought was “at least we get to keep the name.” 

Then state-supported women’s colleges across the country started taking “women” out of their names. MUW didn’t in large part because the university’s leadership failed to get alumni on board. Even though the university has changed its name four times throughout its history — it was originally the Industrial Institute and College for the Education of White Girls — the alumni just couldn’t let go of “The W.” 

Many still can’t. 

Earlier this month, the university’s first proposal, Mississippi Brightwell University, flopped. The feedback was resoundingly negative

That’s when an unofficial group of alumni started discussing an alternate proposal: “The W: A Mississippi University.” It seemed to capture the campus’s Ivy League aspirations, said Laura Tubb Prestwich, who graduated in 2008, works in brand-name strategy and was part of the unofficial group. 

There’s an emotional stake in changing the name for “W girls” like Prestwick, whose grandmother also attended. Prestwich grew up going to modeling, photography and musical theater camps at MUW, and reading old copies of the “Meh Lady” yearbooks. 

“When Tropicana changed their packaging, they saw a 20% drop in sales,” Prestwich said. “That’s an emotional tie to orange juice. Can you fathom it being somewhere you took out student loans for?” 

Facing the demographic cliff

But MUW can’t sustain itself solely off the pockets of legacy students like Prestwick. 

In Mississippi, as in nearly every state in the country, the number of high school graduates is poised to decline, an ominous trend deemed the “enrollment cliff.” This will force increased competition among Mississippi’s eight public universities, all of which are already more dependent on tuition than state funding, and 15 community colleges. 

The future winners of that fight are laying the groundwork today. And MUW is already on the backfoot. 

More than 200 freshmen used to enroll in MUW each year, according to the university. But since 2009, when EMCC’s Golden Triangle campus started a tuition-guarantee program, MUW is lucky if the freshman class broaches 200 at all. In the last decade, MUW has lost 600 undergrads — while down the road, Mississippi State University has seen undergraduate enrollment nearly triple that same amount. Meanwhile, last fall EMCC saw its largest enrollment increase in more than a decade.

The bleeding shows no signs of stopping. But MUW has been retooling its approach. In fall 2022, Miller promoted the longtime head of student success, David Brooking, to executive director of enrollment management. 

Welty Hall houses MUW’s administrative offices on Jan. 25, 2024. Credit: Molly Minta/Mississippi Today

One of the first things Brooking noticed was that MUW needed to do more outreach. The university was buying mailing lists to send letters like the kind Miller got in high school, but not nearly enough names — just 10,000 students when it needed more like 50,000. Brooking fixed that and has expanded MUW’s digital advertising, which he says is the way to reach the introverted, studious high schoolers who’d thrive at MUW. 

Showing up at college fairs in parts of Mississippi with a growing population has been a challenge. The recruiting position assigned to the Coast, nearly five hours from Columbus, had been open since September, but only one person applied. Brooking plans to repost it as a remote job. 

Even when MUW is present, the name impedes the elevator pitch.

“You only get two or three minutes to talk to a student at a college fair, if they’re even showing interest,” Brooking said. “We have to tell them what we’re not before we can tell them what we are.” 

Brooking’s new approach isn’t expected to bear fruit until this fall, Miller said. In the meantime, students can tell the campus is emptier. Laila Wrenn, a member of the student government and a resident assistant, has noticed there are fewer freshmen in the dorms. 

A junior on the pre-med track, Wrenn came to MUW for its close-knit campus, but she gets why others don’t. 

“It’s just not fitting what they wanted college to be, kind of how they portray college on TV,” she said. “When you’re at the W, it doesn’t fit that picture. It’s not a party school. People commute here. It’s really quiet and it’s down to earth, and I feel like a lot of people aren’t attracted to that.”

MUW does have one powerful tool on its side — cost. At $7,766, it has the second lowest tuition for a public university in Mississippi. (In contrast, a year of tuition at Mississippi State runs $9,400.) 

“If you’re gonna quote me on anything about that college,” said Ryan Ahrens, who graduated from MUW in 2021 with a business degree, “it is for sure and without a doubt the bargain of the century.” 

Competing for men — literally 

Ahrens, a Lowndes County native and transfer from East Mississippi Community College, was the exact kind of student MUW has been desperate to attract. And yet, he ended up there by accident. 

“I missed the admissions window for State, and then I said at least the W is still open,” he said. 

The university’s name is one reason it has struggled more than other former women-only colleges to attract men, according to a 2009 study commissioned when a past president, Claudia Limbert, sought to change the name. Since 1990, MUW has barely moved the needle on the number of men it admits, from 442 to 532 in 2020. 

For his part, Ahrens thought the two-year renaming process moved too quickly. But alumni don’t control the school, he said. 

“It’s not our job to have a hand in the pot, it’s our job to make the pot full,” he said. “In order for you to be proud of the university that you graduated from, it still has to be there decades after you leave it.” 

But the name is far from the only area of improvement Ahrens sees. He listed several things that, as a conservative, white member of a fraternity, he saw could be improved: The dorms, the outreach and a vibe he described as “a stern ‘what are you doing here’ kind of look.” 

“If you’re a man going through the W, you gotta go in with a strong mind and a thick skin cause people are gonna talk crap, like ‘you’re just another W girl,’’ Ahrens said. “Like no man, I’m a man.” 

And then there are sports. Changing the name, Ahrens said, is the hardest thing an MUW president has attempted to do since getting into the NCAA last year. Bringing back sports, which the university disbanded in 2003, is part of an effort to attract more students. 

Josh Dukes, a sophomore shooting guard from Booneville whose high school basketball team won the state championship, came to MUW to help build the program from the ground up. Credit: Molly Minta/Mississippi Today

It’s unclear if it’s working yet. Josh Dukes, a sophomore shooting guard from Booneville whose high school basketball team won the state championship, was enticed by the opportunity to help build MUW’s program from the ground up. 

But his family of five brothers (and one sister) jokes that Dukes is playing “women’s basketball.” The team has a losing record. The university’s name makes it easier for other players, Dukes said, to “get inside your head.” 

Losing its home turf

There is an elephant-sized bulldog in the room. 

When Miller attended MUW in the 1980s, it had a complementary relationship to Mississippi State. Male students would come to Columbus to drink and eat out, because Lowndes County was wet and Oktibbeha County was dry. Female students would go to Starkville for the games. 

It’s more competitive now. 

Today, MSU is roaring, enjoying record enrollments, major success in fundraising and a slew of new construction projects. It is also raking in an increasing share of the number of college students who hail from Lowndes County, making MUW the only regional college in Mississippi at risk of losing its home turf. 

In 2022, 450 students went to MUW compared to 432 to MSU, according to IHL data.

MUW is like a tiny planet that may be fated to fall into MSU’s orbit. 

“They’ve got more gravitational pull than we do being so close to them,” Brooking said. 

IHL classifies MUW as a “regional college,” yet MUW’s leaders know that in many ways, they are outmatched by MSU and EMCC. MUW must own its backyard, Miller said, but it also needs a name that can attract students from across the state and the South, one that gets at the one thing the small campus has: A private-college feel on a state-dollar dime that is accessible to all. 

“At Mississippi State or Ole Miss, you might be intimidated … by the people with connections,” Miller said. “Others might say, ‘I couldn’t compete against that.’ But here, we nurture people taking on responsibility and getting to be a leader.” 

But is that message connecting with Mississippians? 

In downtown Columbus, where the number of local businesses rival Oxford’s Square, Naiya Bell, a 21-year-old community college student who was looking for jobs with her friends, said she had considered MUW’s nursing program. 

Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science students Naomi Simpson, left, and Angel Viveros, right, are not considering MUW for college. Credit: Molly Minta/Mississippi Today

But Brenda Heard, a landlord dropping off dry-cleaning who lives in Alabama, leases to MUW students but didn’t know if the university admitted men. Roderick Dillard, a firefighter, said his daughters went to MSU for the experience. 

“Kids like to get out,” Dillard said. 

Naomi Simpson and Angel Viveros students from the academically rigorous Mississippi School for Math and Science, were walking into a local bookstore as they recalled their high school’s recent college fair, which was held in MUW’s gym. Simpson listed off the tables she recalled Mississippi State having: Agriculture, the honors college, education and more. 

Then Simpson paused. For a moment, neither student could remember if MUW was there, too. It was, Viveros remembered.

Simpson shrugged. “Maybe I just didn’t go up to them.” 

Higher education reporter at Mississippi Today in partnership with Open Campus.