Editorial— Enrollment: Knocked Down, Can Dunn Get It Back Up?

Editorial— Enrollment: Knocked Down, Can Dunn Get It Back Up?
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Readers familiar with Nightlife’s regular review of SIU enrollment figures might express some surpri
Chris Wissmann

Readers familiar with Nightlife’s regular review of SIU enrollment figures might express some surprise at the understanding tone of the following analysis.

Yes, apparently enrollment has fallen to its lowest level since 1964. Back then, 14,291 students attended SIU. With the Vietnam War heating up and a lot of young men looking for inexpensive draft deferments, enrollment jumped to 17,932 the next year.

This fall, 17,292 students came to SIU, down from 17,989 last autumn.

Damning as those numbers are, however, no fair reading can lead anyone to blame the current administration. But at issue isn’t the present, it’s the future, and beyond the raw enrollment figures came a truly ominous statement that before too long might lead to justifiable calls for regime change.

First, however, it’s worth noting the context in which SIU is struggling with student recruitment.

For those who have failed to notice, the state’s illustrious governor, Bruce Rauner, is waging a scorched-earth campaign against the Democrat-controlled legislature. Rauner has held up approval of the budget for several months now in order to leverage legislative authorization for a string of antiunion measures. This has ground a ton of state-funded activities to a halt. Locally, the Jackson County Health Department has cut hours of operation, the Carbondale Park District was forced to cease construction of the Super Splash Park, and lord knows how many social-service organizations are on the verge of shutting down.

More directly affecting SIU, almost a month into the semester, state funding for Monetary Award Program grants remains uncertain.

Rauner has proposed huge cuts to Amtrak funding, which could eliminate one or more daily trains to and from Chicago. One need not get too generous in defining what constitutes the Chicago area to see that’s from where a lot of SIU’s students hail. A solid plurality come from Cook County alone.

With a lot of low-income students and many whose families live far away— and at least some who fall into both categories— staying at home and going to junior colleges may have seemed a far safer decision than heading south with shaky prospects for financial aid or transportation to attend a more expensive university.

It’s not realistic that Randy Dunn would overcome those and many other challenges as he embarks on only his second year as university-system president.

The public, however, cannot accept surrender. And those who derive their living by serving students, either as university employees or off-campus workers, must fear the resigned words Dunn used to describe current enrollment figures: “The new normal.”

Illinois State, the University of Illinois Chicago, and SIU’s Edwardsville campus all experienced enrollment increases this semester, the latter two exceeding record levels. A spokesperson for Governor’s State, meanwhile, anticipated “good news” with regard to an announcement about that school’s enrollment expected later this week.

The University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, meanwhile, grew significantly despite facing what the Chicago Tribune labeled “a summer of scandals” in which the chancellor and provost resigned, the former with a controversial golden parachute, for circumventing the Freedom of Information Act; the football coach was fired; women basketball players sued, alleging race discrimination; and a soccer player sued, claiming the school failed to properly deal with her concussions. SIU has its problems, but they’re not nearly that bad, and they don’t ever garner such nonstop coverage in Chicago media.

Other schools, simply put, have found ways to grow in the face of the state’s political warfare, or their own rank incompetence— and one of them operates under the SIU system, for crying out loud.

One potential route among many that SIU might take to rebuild enrollment: The University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign enrolled 7,565 freshmen out of some 34,200 who applied. Certainly, the University of Illinois was the safety school for a percentage of the 26,635 applicants who didn’t arrive at the Urbana-Champaign campus, and they went elsewhere, while some others weren’t qualified for admission. But SIU needs to be the second choice among the rest— those who qualified for the U of I but were not admitted. Had SIU only captured three percent of those 26,635 U of I applicants, enrollment would have risen this year. Three percent. From that school alone. By attending SIU, those students would have received a less-prestigious but not necessarily lower-quality education, and possibly graduate with a smaller amount of student debt. Did anyone make that pitch to them?

 

If in this fall semester’s pre-1965 enrollment levels all Dunn and company can see is a new normal, then he and his administration may lack the desire and imagination to restore SIU into what it deserves and the rest of us require. Hopefully, Dunn actually wants to do the job, and can. But if that’s not the case, Dunn will soon lose community support, and the Board of Trustees should follow suit.