Taken individually, the numbers are disappointing.
Viewed in aggregate, they are staggering.
Each semester, Southern Illinois University reports enrollment at its Carbondale campus has dropped 3 percent, 5 percent or even 7 percent. Again, as an individual occurrence, that seems palatable.
The historical context is more sobering.
From the baby boom generation to the millennials, SIU’s enrollment has dropped from about 21,000 to less than 15,000 — that’s nearly a 30 percent decline.
The reasons are numerous, some beyond the control of SIU, Carbondale or state officials.
First, population levels have stabilized or declined in the state and region. Second, neighboring states have made an aggressive play for local students who normally would have attended SIU. Ads for Southeast Missouri State, Murray State and University of Southern Indiana permeate the airwaves and fill newspapers and magazines.
Missouri, Kentucky and Indiana are offering in-state tuition rates for Illinois students. That’s just one factor.
Another element that is often overlooked is the growth of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Carbondale’s enrollment topped 21,000 students in the 1970s. The paint had barely dried in Edwardsville’s classrooms at that time.
SIUE was formed in the mid-1950s. Ground wasn’t broken at the current campus until 1963. It was a commuter school at the time. Fast forward to the present and Edwardsville has 14,000 students — about the same size as SIUC.
Edwardsville is an attractive alternative for Metro East students that formerly would have migrated south to Carbondale.
But, that’s just part of the issue.
Retention has been a major issue at the Carbondale campus. Students attend a semester or a year, then search for greener pastures.
That indicates there are issues with either the campus or the environment for students in Carbondale.
On-campus housing has aged. The current dorms were in use in the 1970s.
SIU is addressing that. The demolition of the University Towers dormitories was approved at the most recent Board of Trustees meeting. While old-timers might hate to see the iconic towers come down, SIUC must progress or continue to atrophy.
What effect new housing will have in retention remains to be seen, but it can’t hurt.
Then the Carbondale downtown revitalization project is another step in the right direction.
In the 1970s, downtown Carbondale was a hub of activity at night. There was a vibrant bar scene with live music seemingly on every corner. Even on frosty winter nights after basketball games, motorists on Southern Illinois Avenue had to pick their way through traffic.
And, there were several movie theaters within walking distance of the dormitories.
Eventually, the theaters moved to the east edge of town. The bars that attracted the biggest, most successful bands shuttered their doors, leaving students in on-campus housing living on an island with limited entertainment options.
Making Carbondale a more vibrant place for students to spend four years has to help with retention.
Finally, the state doesn’t escape some culpability.
The ongoing budget crisis has had a chilling effect on enrollment. The uncertainty as to whether programs will survive certainly make places like SEMO, Murray State and USI more attractive alternatives.
And, the cuts SIU has endured have, and continue to, diminish the prestige of the university. Just this week the Cooperative Wildlife Research Laboratory said it may have to shutter its doors if the state doesn’t reach a budget agreement this year.
The Cooperative Wildlife Research Lab is renowned nationally for its research.
At this point, it is probably too much to ask for SIU’s enrollment to climb back to its 1970s level. Given the current situation, enrollment stabilization would be a welcome development.
One thing is clear, if SIU is going to prosper, it is going to take the cooperative effort of the university, the City of Carbondale and the State of Illinois. Right now the university and city seem to be taking the right steps. Now, the state needs to get on board.