Editorial: How to Rebuild SIU Enrollment Part I
“I am so sick and tired of the barrage of negative, demoralizing so-called news shared by the Nightlife editor every week about SIU,” Becky Robinson wrote on this newspaper’s Facebook page in response to how this writer has addressed SIU’s enrollment crash and the administration’s flaccid, resigned reaction to it. “Is that the best you can do? Enough already. There are thousands of inspirational things to share... but so fun to pile on, right? Be a part of the solution, not the problem.”
Fair enough. Here are a few ideas for how SIU can bail out the ship and get it steaming forward once again. We’re also open to presenting sincere suggestions from our readers. Please send yours to <mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org> and we may share them in in a future column. Meanwhile:
Lower tuition and fees.
SIU is too expensive, in part because the shrinking student body is supporting a number of university employees that has not declined at the same rate.
Between 1991 and 2015, SIU lost about thirty percent of its enrollment. But (counting the School of Medicine and excluding graduate assistants and undergraduate employees) the total number of faculty and staff has declined by only about ten percent.
SIU should slash tuition and fees by twenty percent and make up for the loss of revenue by laying off twenty percent of the workforce, maybe more. This will mean merging some programs and drastically shrinking or eliminating others— particularly those that students have largely abandoned.
Name a program at SIU, and anyone can defend its worth, even if only as having intrinsic value, or as a place where local residents can get jobs and support Southern Illinois’s economy. Right now, however, the university must concern itself with overall institutional survival. The best way to ensure SIU’s future is to drive up enrollment. Knock down the cost, make SIU a more financially attractive option for prospective students, and enrollment has a better chance of rebounding than if tuition and fees continue to escalate. Then, if the demand is there, the university can restore cut programs and rehire laid-off personnel.
Put employees’ skin in the game.
Going forward, do not increase tuition or fees. Let university personnel know that students will no longer shoulder the burden of an increased SIU payroll. If enrollment or government funding don’t rise, neither will revenue, and SIU will need to cut jobs to compensate.
If that prospect doesn’t inspire employees to relentlessly lobby the state legislature for higher-education funding or help implement innovative ways to help bring students to SIU, they won’t deserve to stay employed.
SIU employees form one of the largest and most affluent voting blocs in the region. Force them to flex their considerable political muscles on behalf of state funding for their own jobs, and woe to the legislators who don’t bow down to them.
Activate the alumni.
Twenty-five years ago, SIU hit its enrollment peak. That means that today, SIU could have more alumni with college-aged children than ever, and more alumni approaching the peak of their financial affluence and political influence. In these respects, the university may have never been in a better position— if SIU approaches its alumni with intelligence, sensitivity, and persistence, it could find a bonanza of legacy students as well as allies to combat the budget stalemate in Springfield. (On the other hand, we may finally discover that the seeds sewn by the university and city’s poor treatment of students circa 1991 will bear bitter fruit.)
Ask students what they want.
Once upon a time, SIU really was a wild party school. That made SIU incredibly popular, and helped drive enrollment to its 1991 peak. University and local officials, however, were ashamed by the university’s reputation and seemed to think it hindered enrollment growth. If they could just get rid of the party-school image, they believed, then enrollment would really boom.
They were dead wrong. They badly misjudged what students wanted from SIU. They undertook numerous measures to kill the party-school image, and enrollment has swirled down the toilet ever since. (Later on, credible sources tell Nightlife, enrollment reductions were intentional, but that’s another story.)
That’s not to say that the road to restored enrollment is to bring back the party— whether that would help depends on if and how much student priorities have changed during the last twenty-five years.
It does mean that SIU must serve student needs, not the fantasies or assumptions of university administrators.
(Serving student needs does not mean pandering to them by dumbing down classes and admitting, passing, or graduating undeserving people. It means equipping students for jobs in their post-college lives. That sometimes requires distinguishing between serving student desires and student needs.)
SIU has many great programs and Southern Illinois in general boasts a tremendous combination of amenities that no other area in the state can offer. But the university needs to figure out what prospective students want, why those who choose other colleges do so, and why those who decide to attend SIU come here. The university also must know why students transfer to other schools.
To answer those questions, SIU must hold a series of focus groups around the state with high-school juniors and seniors, community-college students, those attending other universities, current SIU students, and SIU dropouts. Crunch the data that comes out of those discussions and fearlessly follow it to develop effective marketing strategies.
In other words, don’t advertise SIU as a place that offers what academics imagine students want, or to the kinds of students academics want. Market SIU in a way that actually appeals to the potential students who in reality exist. If students want a party, don’t flinch from marketing SIU as a party school— but make sure students get a world-class education while they have the times of their lives. If students want something else, figure out how to offer that instead— and chances are that a university of SIU’s size already does, but prospective students just don’t know it yet. That’s where marketing comes in.
Funds to advertise SIU will need to come from somewhere. Academic programs, among others, will need to sacrifice. Professors, department heads, and deans will scream. But assuming that they, in general, are doing excellent jobs, their great work is clearly not enough to attract students. If it were, enrollment would have never entered this death spiral. And if SIU can’t pull out of this nosedive, those academics will lose their jobs soon enough. If, however, SIU can reverse the tide, the short-term costs will bring job security for everyone.
Keep the students you have.
The New York Times ran a feature story in its May 15, 2014, magazine (“Who Gets to Graduate?” by Paul Tough), and a column in this year’s August 20 Sunday Review section (“Conquering the Freshman Fear of Failure” by David L. Kirp) about student retention. Go read both of them. They’re unbelievable.
The oversimplified Cliff’s Notes: The biggest common denominator among college flunkouts isn’t low test scores or low class ranking in high school. It’s family income. Students from poor families, even those with impressive academic qualifications, are far more likely to fail out of college than those who come from wealth. This has huge implications for SIU, since as many as twenty percent of the campus’s students qualify for the Monetary Award Program, Illinois’s need-based scholarship.
Here’s the amazing part— the New York Times reported that a little creative visualization is a stunningly effective, proven remedy.
Here’s how it worked. Upperclassmen wrote letters to incoming freshmen discussing how they fought through personal and academic challenges and are now preparing to graduate. Low-income freshmen read those letters. Those freshmen then envisioned themselves four year later and wrote letters of their own, addressed to future incoming students, talking about the travails they overcame on their ways to college graduation.
The exercise took maybe an hour. And it cut the achievement gap between students from poor and affluent backgrounds in half.
A simple intervention of proven effectiveness that comes with virtually no cost? SIU must immediately adopt this practice.
To be continued...