CARBONDALE — City leaders in the home to Southern Illinois University didn’t seem surprised by the enrollment numbers released Tuesday.
In fact, they were optimistic that change is coming.
On Tuesday, SIU released its official fall enrollment of 15,987 students for the fall, a 7.6 percent decline from the previous year. Dips in enrollment isn’t new for Carbondale, as the enrollment has been steadily falling for several years except for a flat year in 2014.
“I don’t think that comes as any surprise because of the anecdotal stories we hear about students looking out of state because of uncertainty with the state budget,” said Carbondale Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Les O’Dell. “I think a lot of the enrollment issues here can be attributed to Springfield and the out-of-state schools in the region stepping up their game to take advantage of that.”
As for the business community, it has a role in making Carbondale a place people want to be, he said.
“We can make sure the students that are here have a wonderful experience in Carbondale and Southern Illinois,” he said. “Because students are the best recruiters for other students. If they enjoy their time at SIU and in Carbondale, they will tell their friends back home.”
Carbondale Mayor Mike Henry said the numbers were what he expected, but said SIU is on the right track.
“They are reaching out to our local high schools in Southern Illinois and have people visiting them, which hasn’t been done in the past,” he said. “I am like everybody else, I hope this is the low-water mark and that we can go up from here.”
He said SIU has raised its academic standards for incoming freshman, meaning the students are capable of college work and will return the next year.
Carbondale City Manager Gary Williams also wasn't surprised, saying that with the state budget problems, things could be worse.
“It is not the end of the world,” he said. “Not everybody will want to hear this, but this news presents a lot of opportunity.”
He said there is a lot of focus in city hall and the City Council on how to make the city a more inviting and welcoming place.
“It isn’t solely SIU … but the fact they are the biggest economic engine, we are sensitive to the role we play to help them be more successful,” Williams said.
Business owners weigh in
Jen LuDuc, owner of Jen's Joe in Carbondale, said the relationship between SIU and Carbondale has to continue.
“If you look around, Carbondale is cleaning up some stuff, but the school is not separate from the community,” she said.
Students need something more that would draw them to a particular place, and Carbondale doesn't have much of that, she said.
“If SIU was smart, they would be working with the community to try and draw businesses that would cause students to be able to like stuff,” LuDuc said.
Pryor Jordan, owner of Saluki Screen Repair, has a high student volume, but he isn't concerned. Yet, he understands further decline could be detrimental.
“Saluki Screen Repair won't be hurt too much by the decline in enrollment because we're still growing,” Jordan said. “But if enrollment continues to wither away, it could affect lots of small business in Southern Illinois, including ours.”
He said it doesn't do communities any good to point the finger at Springfield and say "you're the problem."
“Local businesses need to think about how to turn recent SIU graduates into permanent Southern Illinois residents,” Jordan said. “For us, that means hiring recent graduates to fill management-track positions.”
Mayor Henry said the city will continue its downtown revitalization efforts, which will be funded by half of a 2 percent food and beverage tax amended this summer.
"We are the last university town in Illinois to revitalize our downtown,” he said. “By this time next year, the downtown will look significantly different.”
He said the city is working on several beautification projects, including the installation of a monument at the entrance of the city. It will be similar to SIU's monument and will read “Welcome to Carbondale — Home of Southern Illinois University.”
"We want to brand Carbondale as the home of SIU,” Henry said. “We want people coming into this town and thinking about SIU when they are here.”