CARBONDALE — Austin Lane, who joined Southern Illinois University as chancellor of its Carbondale campus in July, said he noticed one glaringly obvious problem area right away: In recent years, SIU had lost sight of the importance of recruiting students from its backyard.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out,” he said. “We have to have our No. 1 priority be here in the Southern Illinois region as it relates to recruiting.”
Lane and top members of his admissions and recruitment staff have spent the past several weeks reaching out to Southern Illinois high school and community college leaders to talk with them about efforts to improve local recruitment and seek their feedback on what SIU can do to draw more students. That has materialized in the form of a series of Zoom calls in light of COVID-19.
Lane said the administrators have been “really brutally honest” in their assessment of the situation. “In each one of the phone calls, they just said we haven’t been there — and the competitors have,” he said.
That includes other regional four-year university recruiters showing up to Southern Illinois high schools with consistency and offering competitive scholarships to a broader range of students while SIU did neither of those things. Lane said there are a significant number of regional high school “legacy” students whose parents or other relatives attended SIU and loved it.
In many cases, it was the school of choice for the administrators and teachers they know as well. But with SIU absent from recruiting events, and other schools offering bigger tuition breaks for low- and middle-income students with at least a 2.75 GPA, too many families have been making the decision to break ranks and go in a different direction, Lane said.
SIU’s recently announced Saluki Commitment and Saluki Transfer Commitment are among the efforts intended to recruit more Southern Illinois students. Through those initiatives, SIU has agreed to cover the cost of all remaining tuition and fees after financial aid is applied for qualifying students whose families make $63,575 or less. The former program applies to dependent Illinois high school students under age 24, and with a 2.75 GPA or better, and the latter to Illinois students preparing to transfer from a community college to a four-year university.
Steve Murphy, superintendent of Carbondale High School — himself an SIU grad — said he has been disappointed with SIU’s recruitment efforts at the high school in recent years. While other regional schools such as Murray State in Kentucky and Southeastern Missouri State in Cape Girardeau were regularly “knocking on our door,” visits by SIU recruiters were sporadic, he said, even though the campus is less than a mile away.
With Lane’s renewed focus, “you can see their desire to reach out to local schools,” Murphy said. He noted that SIU has hosted three application events for Carbondale High students, and is waiving application fees. Individual campus departments, such as the School of Health Sciences, have also invited students to virtual events to learn more about their specific program offerings.
Murphy applauded Lane’s efforts, and said it’s encouraging to see the energy the chancellor is bringing to the job. The other regional schools are still reaching out to students, but now, “SIU seems to be right there with them,” he said.
SIU’s enrollment freefall in recent years is no secret. SIU saw its enrollment drop from 17,292 students in the fall of 2015, to 11,366 students this fall. While not the only Illinois school to suffer enrollment losses, challenges facing higher education as a whole were compounded on the Carbondale campus by a lack of stable leadership in key positions, including that of chancellor, but also recruitment and admissions specialists.
The shrinking number of Southern Illinois high school graduates and community college transfers selecting SIU certainly contributed to recent enrollment losses. SIU saw a decline of about 2,000 students from Illinois’ lower 17 counties over the past decade, according to figures the university provided to The Southern. That said, the loss of local students wasn’t the only contributing factor to SIU’s enrollment decline. During the same time period, SIU’s enrollment dropped by about 8,450 students. Just since 2015, SIU has lost nearly 6,000 students.
Students enrolling from those 17 Southern Illinois counties have consistently made up about 20% of overall enrollment. And while the local losses are apparent, another caveat to the statistics is that Southern Illinois high schools and some community colleges have also been shrinking in size alongside SIU, producing smaller graduating classes from which universities are competing for students.
Still, Lane sees an opportunity for the university — and for the local students it hopes to recruit. He hopes to first stabilize and then grow enrollment, while also opening students' eyes to the opportunity that exists in their backyard.
In the months and years ahead, Lane said it’s his intention to personally roll out the red carpet for Southern Illinois graduates considering the pursuit of a college degree. He plans to not only send his staff to area high school achievement events, but also show up himself to hand out scholarships and meet one-on-one with prospective students.
“That doesn’t mean we’re going to not recruit outside of Southern Illinois,” he said. “Obviously we have to do that. But our No. 1 priority is going to be to make sure our schools, our surrounding schools, whether it’s Murphysboro or Carterville or Marion or any of our local schools that are in this area, that they know we want students to come from those high schools directly to SIU.”
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On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI
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