Southern Illinois University Carbondale released its fall 2019 enrollment figures Wednesday with a decided glass half-full spin.
This fall’s enrollment is down just 8.75 percent compared to last year. That number seems positively exciting when compared to a 13.6 decline a few years ago. And, new student enrollment dipped “just” 8.47 percent, much better than the 18.8 percent decline last year.
We get it. We also get that indications are that the trend toward declining enrollment may soon be reversed.
Yet, the headline emanating from Wednesday’s news conference still read “Enrollment decline slows.”
The cold hard fact is that enrollment is down — again. Not that the numbers come as any great shock. University officials knew that last year’s graduating class was significantly larger than this year’s incoming freshman group.
This fall’s enrollment is 11,695. To find a lower enrollment at SIUC, a person would have to travel back in time to the 1950s.
University officials are quick to cite percentages — the enrollment decrease this year is just 8.75 percent over last fall. That can be construed as good news. However, the math can get a bit fuzzy. That’s an 8.75 percent decline in what had already been the lowest enrollment figure for five decades.
Positive spin aside, the real numbers are sobering. The university notes, correctly, that college enrollments are down nationally and declines in birth rates mean there are fewer potential students each year. Conversely, both Murray State University and Illinois State reported enrollment increases this fall. Murray State is reporting 1,420 new students this year, an increase of nearly 8 percent. Illinois State’s enrollment is up less than 2 percent, but it is an actual increase.
It would feel comforting if there were someone, even something, to blame. There isn’t. At least not in the current administration. The university is working hard to reverse the trend.
SIU, like other public universities in Illinois, was hurt by the two-year budget standoff. The university made some interesting choices during that time, like cutting its recruitment budget — a regrettable decision. And, the soap opera that has entangled the SIU administration for nearly a decade certainly hasn’t helped the university’s reputation.
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However, thick as the dark clouds may appear, there are at least hints of silver linings.
Retention numbers have improved significantly. The university reported 75 percent of last year’s freshman class has returned. That’s up from 71 and 67 percent the two previous years.
“It’s way up from where it was four or five years ago,” said SIUC interim chancellor John Dunn. “We’ve also seen an increase in our sophomore to junior retention rate, which continues that desirable line.”
We agree. Keeping students on campus will be a key to rebuilding enrollment.
Another positive is the quality of student choosing to enroll at SIU. The average ACT score of enrolled students is 24.30 this fall, up from last year’s 20-year high of 23.65.
The university is pouring more resources into recruitment and retention, investments that should pay off in both the long- and short-term. Recently, the university spent $1.2 million on new software tools that allow SIU to actively engage prospective students. Full-time recruiting officers are assigned to the St. Louis and Chicago metropolitan areas.
Finally, SIU has received state funding to rebuild the Communications Building. SIU has long been noted for its journalism, radio-television and theater departments, but the building housing those fields of study deteriorated badly — paint peeling off walls, water stains from leaks, old desks stored in the halls.
A little sprucing up certainly won’t hurt recruiting.
And, the new nursing program recently announced will also bring new students to campus.
Bottom line, the glass is half full. That can be construed as a good thing if the glass has historically been empty. That hasn’t been the case at SIU. It is simply a reminder of today’s reality. There are indications the water level could be rising, but we aren’t there yet.