Editorial— SIU’s 2015 College Score Card
On September 12, the Obama White House unveiled a revised College Score Card at <https://CollegeScoreCard.ed.gov>. Some of the circumstances involving its creation were controversial, but readers can explore those issues at their leisure— they’re not germane to the topic at hand, which is how SIU fared compared to other state and regional universities.
Several numbers jump out, and unsurprisingly, the data make easily drawn and indisputable conclusions about where the home team could stand significant improvements.
First, with an average annual cost of $16,265, SIU is way too expensive, and the rewards of its degrees are increasingly difficult to justify. The average annual price of attending regional competitors Murray State and Southeast Missouri is significantly less, at $9,600 and $12,012, respectively. Murray and SEMO graduates, after ten years, command smaller paychecks than SIU’s, but rare is the undergrad who can see so far into the future— at that age I and most of my peers couldn’t think beyond the upcoming weekend’s festivities (which in turn led to the founding of Nightlife).
Meanwhile, due to the amount of scholarships available at the state’s flagship school, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign costs only $2,533 per year more to attend, on average, than SIU, and students there graduate with an average of $1,550 less in student debt— but ten years after graduation they are likely to earn an average of $15,100 a year more than SIU alumni. Cost and debt are even lower at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and although alumni earning power is a little less than at the flagship school, it’s still $10,000 a year more one decade after graduation than those with SIU degrees.
SIU’s graduation rate is only one point greater than the national average, and it’s the second-lowest among major state and regional universities. The percentage of first-year students who return for a second year is also the second-lowest. Only Chicago State fared worse in both categories.
Students don’t make it through college for any number of reasons. They flunk out because they’re unqualified. They discover they can’t afford it. They may feel poorly treated by university employees. They may feel they aren’t learning anything useful in their programs and see better educational opportunities elsewhere. Low family income can sabotage educational attainment regardless of a student’s intelligence, high-school rankings, and test scores. A lot of students who leave SIU probably fit into some combination of the above categories.
Several bottom lines emerge.
The administration of Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner will never increase state allocations to SIU (or higher education in general), and the next gubernatorial election is three long years hence. Instead of raising revenue through increased tuition or fees, SIU instead must drastically reduce its costs, or SIU will price itself further out of the market, causing continued, sharp enrollment declines alongside revenue from tuition and fees.
If state budget cuts hit the Monetary Award Program hard, SIU could lose almost $15 million, and the three- to four-thousand students the grant subsidizes with it. SIU, then, needs to recruit many more students from higher-income families. It can— and must— do this without sacrificing its traditional commitment to blue-collar, minority, and low-income students.
Educational support for low-income students might not consume vast resources as once believed. The University of Texas at Austin has dramatically improved grades and graduation rates among low-income students with an extremely short, low-cost intervention called the U.T. Mindset. SIU ought to immediately copy it.
To get more highly qualified students, Nightlife offered a suggestion the other week that bears repeating: This fall the University of Illinois enrolled only 7,565 freshmen out of some 34,200 applicants. That’s 26,635 students SIU should have recruited, if only as their safety school. Capturing only three percent of those applicants would have reversed SIU’s enrollment decline and probably would have raised the school’s graduation and retention rate to boot. SIU might focus effective recruitment efforts toward Illinois high-school students that the U of I would probably admit but might not have the room to enroll— those with ACT scores in the range of twenty-six to twenty-nine, for example.
SIU needs to conduct surveys and focus groups to determine why its shrinking student body does decide to come here, and if there’s a common thread that can be used to recruit others. Beyond that, administrators, professors, and staff need existing students to hold up a mirror to them. Enrollment declines are only a symptom of the problems SIU faces, which include attitude, competence, and quality.
If the university served students better, it would not have such a poor graduation rate or such a high rate of first-year students who don’t return for a second go-round. It would not have lost twenty-five percent of its enrollment in twenty-four years, and enrollment would not have fallen to the lowest level since the Beatles first topped the charts.
That must change, by any means necessary, and yesterday. Research institution be damned, the purpose of SIU is to serve students, period. Every employee at SIU, from tenured professors to student janitors, needs to successfully complete comprehensive customer-service training courses that hammer home this prime directive. Anyone who’s not rowing the boat in that direction or bailing it out needs to swim off on their own, and if they seem content to passively sit aboard, hopefully system president Randy Dunn won’t hesitate to toss the deadweight over the side.
SIU’s College Score Card grades paint a grim picture of the university, especially when compared to other schools. If viewed honestly, however, they also provide clarion directives for the significant improvements SIU must make. The questions are the same ones to ask of any college student who fails several classes, and that’s whether SIU received the message, is willing to change, and is able to recover in sufficient enough fashion before it flunks out.