Editorial: How to Rebuild SIU Enrollment, Part III

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During the fall semester, Nightlife ran two lengthy columns detailing actions that SIU should take t
Chris Wissmann

During the fall semester, Nightlife ran two lengthy columns detailing actions that SIU should take to help restore enrollment. With the announcement of another big spring enrollment decline this week— the university lost 1,170 students compared to spring 2016, a 7.4 percent drop that parallels the fall plummet in terms of proportion— here are more ideas SIU can use to plug the iceberg-sized hole in its hull.

We’re certainly open to presenting sincere suggestions from our readers. Please send yours to <mailto:nightlif@midwest.net> and we may share them in in a future column. Meanwhile:

Grant automatic admission to SIU to anyone the University of Illinois accepted but wait-listed or otherwise did not admit. There are certainly barriers to doing this— getting a confirmed list of whom the U of I has accepted may present privacy concerns— but they’re worth the effort to overcome.

It’s a huge pool of qualified students from which to recruit. In February 2016, the News-Gazette of Urbana/Champaign reported that 37,876 persons applied that semester, and the U of I accepted about twenty-two-thousand of them. Most, however, didn’t enroll— freshmen that semester at the U of I numbered only 4,803. Some who did, certainly, were graduate or law students, for example, or transfers from community colleges, and the U of I counted them elsewhere in the campus census. For some others, the U of I was a safety school, and those students went elsewhere.

But there’s still a lot of students among those twenty-two-thousand who for whatever reason didn’t chose the U of I, or for whom the state’s flagship university didn’t have room. SIU needs to make it too easy for them not to come here.

Hold many more online, evening, and weekend classes. The idea of online classes may offend much of the faculty on general principles, and for good reasons— nobody at SIU wants to join Trump University and its ilk as an educational laughingstock. And many professors might not relish the idea of staying late on weekdays or getting up early on Saturdays to teach classes.

But the nine-to-five, brick-and-mortar model that SIU follows no longer works for too many potential students. People with full-time jobs, children, house payments, and other obligations will not abandon those important responsibilities to pursue SIU degrees, even if the sacrifices may bring long-term gains.

Legitimate universities are offering far more flexible options— which don’t require living in poverty or racking up unconscionable loan debt— than SIU. This university will continue to lose its share in the marketplace of ideas if it fails to adapt to these nontraditional students, who may rapidly become the new traditionalists. SIU’s challenge is to change with integrity.

Eliminate SIU’s application fee. Undergraduates pay a nonrefundable $40 application fee, while graduates pay a nonrefundable $65 application fee. While these fees probably discourage people from turning in applications to a school they have no interest in attending, thus creating unnecessary busywork for admissions employees, they also dissuade sincere applicants from bothering with SIU.

Nightlife reported that in fall 2001, the first semester after SIU introduced its application fee, enrollment plummeted by 954 students, and by 612 students after the second semester that the fee was established—easily predictable outcomes to everyone but the clueless administrators who instituted them. There were other factors contributing to those enrollment declines, of course, but the fee didn’t help. Removing the fee will increase applications, and hopefully enrollment will follow that upward trajectory.

Design billboards that don’t suck. Nearly all of SIU’s billboards violate approximately every single rule of graphic arts and advertising.

One broken rule: Advertising must appeal to its audience. So a billboard that reads “Research grants: $78 MM. Patents awarded: 49. Opportunities: Endless” might serve as Viagra for research professors. But to the prospective students they are in theory designed to reach? Those grants don’t pay student salaries, and royalties from those patents don’t accrue to students, so why should they care? The message doesn’t communicate how students would benefit from an SIU education.

Another broken rule: If you can’t process the information on it, the billboard sucks. Billboards are not inspirational posters at a dentist’s office that you can stare at and contemplate for twenty minutes while the novocaine takes effect. Motorists drive past many billboards at seventy miles per hour, so drivers and their passengers need to absorb their messages in the blink of an eye. An extreme closeup of somebody doing god knows what trailed by cryptic (or, less charitably put, nonsensical) text like “Initiative Rewarded” won’t cut it.

An SIU billboard that violated both of the above rules read something like “8,000 Acres of Possible.” Only people who grow up on farms or sell real estate know how big acres are. To the rest of the world, acres are where farmers grow corn and ranchers raise hogs, not where people go to college. And apparently nobody ran that one by the English Department. “Acres of Possible” isn’t quite right. “Acres of Possibilities,” maybe. But again, why would the size of the campus matter to students? Plenty of big things— Walmart, Coldplay concerts, the Golden Corral buffet— suck. And the message itself is too cryptic— or, really, nonsensical.

You know whose billboards really pop? The Edwardsville campus’s. Messages like “SIUExcellence” immediately make their points, and extremely well. Little wonder that school has grown while this one has shriveled. Maybe SIU should job out marketing efforts to its sister campus.

 

Establish a campus Walk of Fame. Prominent SIU alumni should get stars on high-traffic campus sidewalks, similar to those on the University City Loop, Beale Street, and Hollywood. Expand the definition of alumni to include former professors, and students who didn’t actually graduate but have gone on to huge successes— and to those who don’t donate boatloads of cash to the university. Students and visitors to campus will discover that SIU alumni went on to help invent drugs like Prozac, serve in the U.S. Senate, play music with the Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson, win acclaim at Sundance, and play in the National Basketball Association and National Football League. Such a Walk of Fame would jazz up the campus with much-needed and well-earned pride— students can see they’re walking where important people once did and imagine greatness in their own futures. Meanwhile, SIU could give recognition to those who might not feel remembered— much less appreciated— by their alma mater, and there’s no telling how many dividends that could end up paying over the years.