Editorial: SIU Enrollment Goes Down Again, Hard; Freshman Enrollment May Not Be at a Twenty-year High

Pictured: The new Student Services Building, or Studentless Services Building?
Chris Wissmann


The new Student Services Building is coming along nicely. It will look stately when completed. But the question remains: What students will it serve?

SIU announced that enrollment fell once again, by a stunning 883 students-- far more than the three-hundred that campus chancellor Rita Cheng predicted some time back, and only a shade less shameful than last year’s devastating, possibly record-setting collapse of 970. Cheng, meanwhile, continues to sing the same old song that her predecessors made rote so many years ago.

Once again, Cheng points to the university’s large freshman class— touted as the biggest in twenty years— as an indication that an enrollment turnaround is imminent.

But this isn’t the biggest freshman enrollment in twenty years. This year’s 2,571-strong freshman class is smaller than the freshman classes of 2003 (2,599 freshmen), 2004 (2,656 freshmen), 2007 (2,609 freshmen), and 2008 (2,660 freshmen).

Such pesky facts aside, for a decade, almost every fall SIU administrators have made this promise: As the larger freshman classes and smaller upper classes make their way through the system, enrollment numbers will rebound.

It never happens.

SIU press releases in fall 2004, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011, and 2012 all bragged about larger freshman classes, some of them significantly larger than the previous fall. Except in 2004, however, overall enrollment fell in every one of those years.

And it fell again this year-- to its lowest level since 1964, in fact. The last time enrollment on the Carbondale campus was this small, John F. Kennedy had been shot and Lyndon Johnson hadn’t completed his first year as president of the United States. Carbondale’s school system was still segregated.

The summer 2013 enrollment of 7,313 may have been the lowest since 1962. Kennedy hadn’t been shot, the Cuban Missile Crisis hadn’t transpired, and Ringo Starr hadn’t yet joined the Beatles. Bob Odenkirk, Steve Carell, and Jon Stewart weren’t yet born, and neither was Lou Diamond Phillips. Barack Obama’s first birthday was still a few months away.

More and more first-year students come to SIU every year, and yet fewer and fewer total students attend the university. This indicates a host of problems.

As Nightlife noted back in February, according to the Obama White House’s College Scorecard, from 2007 to 2009 SIU’s six-year graduation rate of 44.5 percent was the second-lowest among the state’s major public universities and SIU’s two leading regional competitors, Murray State and Southeast Missouri State (the latter of which announced record-breaking enrollment for the nineteenth consecutive year). Only Northern Illinois University ranked lower. And only NIU had a higher percentage of students who transferred to another institution, at least among major Illinois public universities that reported this statistic.

Contrast this with the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, where a whopping 82.5 percent of students graduate within six years. At Illinois State, only 11.5 percent of students transferred to another institution, the low for major Illinois public universities reporting this statistic. Contrast that with SIU’s 43.7 percent transfer rate.

SIU’s sorry completion rate indicates that the university is admitting too many unqualified students with no chance of graduating. According to the College Board’s website, in fall 2012 twenty-one percent of SIU freshmen scored between twelve and seventeen on the ACT.

SIU claims to weigh standardized-test scores against high-school ranking and grade-point average-- and in fairness, plenty of smart people perform poorly on tests while many stupid people luck out on them. As a result, some universities have entirely stopped factoring ACT and SAT scores into their admissions.

At SIU, however, according to the College Board, thirty-nine percent of last year’s freshmen landed in the bottom half and ten percent graduated in the bottom quarter of their high-school classes. The 2012 SIU Factbook shows new freshmen who graduated in the bottom half of their high-school classes growing from twenty-eight percent in 2005 to thirty-four percent in 2012. The College Board notes that twenty-six percent of SIU freshmen in 2012 graduated from high school with a grade-point average between two and 2.49. These probably aren’t the students who aced the ACT or SAT.

To take chances on people with either low high-school grades or low ACT scores may seem laudable, but college is extremely expensive, even at SIU. The university does no favors by accepting borderline students who inevitably fail out with thousands of dollars in loans permanently dragging down their credit ratings. Instead, SIU contributes to the exploding education-debt crisis; nationwide, outstanding student loans are about to hit $1.2 trillion, which may total more than America’s credit-card or automobile-loan debt.

SIU’s appallingly huge transfer rate might indicate some of the worst customer service in Illinois-- in other words, students leave because they don’t feel welcome or appreciated. Others may leave because they don’t believe they are learning anything useful in their programs and see better educational opportunities elsewhere.

In explicably, Cheng noted in a press release that “our retention rate held steady this year, an encouraging sign,” but it’s hard to square the dramatically lower upper-classmen count with a stable retention rate, unless continued freefall represents consistency.

The smaller junior and senior classes indicate not only the acceptance of underclassmen unqualified to reach their third years and fourth years in college, combined with qualified students who leave SIU early and unsatisfied. The smaller upper classes also demonstrate how poorly SIU has recruited from community colleges. This is one area where the rest of the university needs to learn from Saluki Athletics, which certainly understands the value of junior-college transfers.

If, like two decades of SIU freshmen before them, too many new students fail out, or leave early for what they perceive as greener or friendlier pastures, this large freshman class provides only a transient benefit to SIU and the surrounding community. Long-term, though, it leaves SIU with two black eyes-- one from those who flunked out, resentful of the debt they incurred here, and one from those who transferred to what they found were better or more compatible universities. Neither will provide the good word-of-mouth SIU needs to sustainably grow. Then there’s the gut-punch combination: SIU is poorly positioned as Illinois and the Obama administration each push toward performance-based funding, where universities will receive state and federal appropriations based on student academic success.

This fall, SIU is claiming higher qualifications among the freshman class. Regardless, SIU will need to educate these new students and provide them with a good quality of life-- not offering what administrators or parents want, but what students themselves actually desire-- to keep them here. If SIU cannot do so, then the halls of that stately but extremely expensive and empty Studentless Services Building will lack even ghosts to liven them up.