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Southern Illinois University Carbondale reported Tuesday its enrollment has dropped to 12,817 students, an 11.9 percent decline from last year.

Those numbers aren’t surprising. In fact, they are slightly better than anticipated.

Still, it’s shocking to see that number — 12,817 — in print. That figure represents about half of SIUC’s enrollment, 24,869, in 1991. The decline this year follows drops of 7.5 percent in 2016 and 9 percent last year.

Obviously, that trend is ominous.

We have to remember that SIUC is currently “paying the fiddler” for serious issues the past decade. The State of Illinois went two years without a budget. That impasse decimated SIU and every other public university in the state. Internally, SIUC went nearly a decade without full-time recruitment staff.

If that wasn’t enough, the Southern Illinois University system was embroiled in a messy debate regarding its very existence.

However, the time for finger-pointing has passed. Hopefully, this 12,817 figure represents rock bottom, although enrollment figures usually drop in the spring semester.

In the face of the sobering numbers, SIUC chancellor Carlo Montemagno remains a voice of optimism. Montemagno has set a goal of adding 5,500 students by 2025. A cynic might note that the chancellor is paid to put the best face on the situation, but a closer look suggests he may have a point.

In a news release earlier this week, Montemagno said attendance at SIU open houses is increasing and applications for the fall 2019 term are up over previous years. Eastern Illinois University pointed to those same indicators for the past two years and enrollment at Charleston showed a 7.1 percent increase this year.

“We’re on the right track,” Montemagno said.

Realistically, it’s probably too early to be definitive about a future enrollment increase. Conversely, it gives the SIU community and all of Southern Illinois hope that while the forecast might not be entirely gloomy, at the very least, the sky is not falling.

And, SIU officials are doing more than simply praying aloud. A battle plan has already been put into action — recruiting materials are being updated, the school is targeting more out-of-state students and creating more of a presence in Southern Illinois high schools.

The school will host the first-ever SIU Day on Sept. 19. It’s refreshing to see a proactive response.

Tuesday’s announcement was coupled with some good news — although it definitely falls into the consolation prize category. First, the retention rate of last year’s students was 71.08 percent, the highest in recent years.

Second, the average ACT score of incoming students is higher than in the past, a measure that could indicate fewer students dropping out next year.

Yet, it’s obvious more needs to be done, especially in light of the University of Illinois offering eight semesters of free tuition to qualifying students, families that earn less than $61,000. SIUC may have to ante up with a counter offer. It’s difficult to imagine low-income families opting to pay tuition to send their children to SIU when the University of Illinois is offering free tuition.

It bears repeating that recruitment and retention should be the university’s primary focus for the foreseeable future. Not that an institution the size of SIUC is incapable of multi-tasking, but attracting and keeping good students is more important than how academic units are organized or preventing student-athletes from making political statements.

The increased enrollment figures at Eastern Illinois University shows the trend can be reversed. The enrollment decrease at Charleston was as steep as SIU’s. At its peak, EIU had about 14,000 students. Last year there were just 6,012 students.

For the sake of SIU, and the entire region, we have to hope Montemagno’s optimism is a harbinger of a brighter future — and a more crowded campus.

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