There is nothing comforting in the fall enrollment numbers released by Southern Illinois University Carbondale last week.
As has been the case in recent years, a decline in enrollment was expected. Nevertheless, the numbers were still somewhat shocking.
The 10-day figures announced earlier this week pegged SIU’s enrollment at 14,554, an 8.96 percent drop from last year. The largest decrease was in the freshman class — down 408 students from last year, a precipitous 19.19 percent decrease.
There is no way, nor any reason, to sugarcoat the numbers. They are what they are — a continuation of what has been a decade-long downward spiral.
Let’s also not pretend this is a simple problem. There are no silver bullets, magic wands, marketing campaigns or miracle drugs that will get SIUC back on course. In fact, this year’s numbers seem to actually cloud the picture a bit.
In previous years, student retention seemed to be the primary issue. Now, it appears getting students to Carbondale initially has become more of a problem.
It’s not a pretty picture.
Granted, some of the issues facing SIU are not the fault of the school. The two-year budget crisis has crippled other state institutions. The lack of a budget has resulted in staff and program cuts. Upgrades to student housing have been put on hold.
And, the university has taken an indirect black eye from an uptick in violent crime experienced in Carbondale the past few years.
But, in the midst of the doom and gloom of raw numbers, there is one ray of hope. We take heart in the words of new chancellor Carlo Montemagno, who said the reasons for SIUC’s continuing enrollment decline cannot be excuses.
No, attitude itself won’t reverse the enrollment decline, but approaching the issue with the proper resolve can help. We say this with full knowledge that it is Montemagno’s job to approach the issue with an optimistic viewpoint.
With that grain of salt, we like many of the things Montemagno said.
For starters, there are a couple rays of silver lining poking through the black cloud — retention numbers are better and the average ACT score for SIU students has increased.
It’s hardly a novel approach, but Montemagno stated the university must build upon what it does best. While it sounds like a simple solution, if Montemagno is serious, that will require some serious introspection. It may result in sacrificing programs that were once considered sacred cows.
“We need to re-envision ourselves as a university to make our message appealing and fit the needs of this new generation of students,” he said. “Some programs will go away, some programs will have resources added to them and there will be some new programs that get established.”
That would appear to be simple common sense.
Hopefully, with a state budget in place, SIU administrators can get to the hard work of streamlining and modernizing the university’s approach to education instead of being pre-occupied with simply keeping the doors open and the lights on.
We do take issue with one thing Montemagno said. He cautioned against comparing enrollment numbers at the Carbondale and Edwardsville campuses, citing the fact that SIUC is the flagship institution in the SIU system.
While factually correct, the continued growth of SIU Edwardsville has to have had an effect on enrollment at the Carbondale campus.
Three decades ago, SIUE was a commuter school with an enrollment hovering at about 5,000 students. The Edwardsville campus now has more than 14,000 students. The campus is located in the Metro East, an area that is also a prime recruiting ground for SIUC.
Finally, while we are encouraged by Montemagno’s words, it’s time to put those thoughts into action. The downward trend in enrollment must be reversed, and quickly.