CARBONDALE — Southern Illinois University officials are bracing for another enrollment drop in the fall — and they’re pointing fingers at Springfield.
“We’re not there yet to give you specific data,” said SIU Carbondale Chancellor Brad Colwell. “But we will be down if projections hold. It’s not because of a lack of anything the Carbondale campus has done.”
Instead, Colwell said students and parents are telling school administrators they are “worried about what’s happening in Illinois.”
“Our data is showing they’re not going to another Illinois institution. They’re leaving the state,” Colwell said, speaking to reporters after SIU’s Board of Trustees meeting on Thursday morning.
SIUC typically releases enrollment numbers 10 days into the semester, and there’s room for change between now and August.
But this is prime enrollment season for incoming students as they graduate high school this month. Many students have already solidified their college plans. So, despite SIUC’s reluctance to provide specifics on the enrollment picture to date, application and acceptance data, even this early, likely provides a decent glimpse as to what's in store for the 2016/2017 school year.
“We’re down,” Colwell said. “We’re going to be down.”
Colwell declined to elaborate on the projected depth of the decline. He said administrators should have a clearer picture of enrollment expectations by early July.
For the fall 2015 semester, enrollment was down by about 4 percent, or 697 students. The enrollment declined from 17,989 students in fall 2014 to 17,292 in fall 2015. This past year, administrators anticipated that drop in enrollment to result in $5.2 million in lost revenue for the university.
Colwell said the university is constantly in talks about ways to bolster enrollment, such as the most effective way to target scholarship funds. “This keeps us up late at night trying to figure that out,” he said.
Because SIU is such a huge economic engine in Southern Illinois, and Carbondale particularly, the number of students expected in the fall is a closely watched and highly anticipated figure for area political and business leaders.
Carbondale Mayor Mike Henry said he believes that SIU President Randy Dunn, Colwell and their teams have done an excellent job of preserving the university’s core, and that first-time and returning students will find the school just as strong in the fall as it’s always been.
But one of the more frustrating aspects of the budget impasse — now in its 11th month — is that the uncertainty requires downsizing plans, and can breed uncertainty and rumors about the stability of the institution.
“SIU isn’t going to go out of business,” Henry said. “It’s going to be here.” But the damage has already been done, he said. Until a recent stopgap measure sending $34.4 million — less than a third of its annual appropriation — to the Carbondale campus, SIUC had not received any money this fiscal year, which began July 1. “I think it’s going to take the better part of a decade to recover,” Henry said.
The city’s fiscal year budget, which began May 1, projected a $100,000 sales tax decline as it relates to an expected dip in enrollment at SIUC.
During the board meeting, SIU Edwardsville interim Chancellor Steve Hansen said the budget impasse has also affected his campus. Freshman admissions are down about 6 percent compared to the same time last year, he said, and applications are also behind.
“It’s the uncertainty in Illinois over MAP (Monetary Award Program) funding and the overall future of higher education that’s having a detrimental effect,” Hansen said.
Henry and others also noted that nearby schools located in other states are taking advantage of Illinois’ soured political climate, and places such as Southeast Missouri State University and Murray State University in Kentucky have stepped up their recruitment efforts of Southern Illinois’s graduating high school seniors.