Editorial: SIU’s Stupid Tuition Hike

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The SIU Board of Trustees made a dumb decision this past week when it enacted a 3.9 percent increase
Chris Wissmann

The SIU Board of Trustees made a dumb decision this past week when it enacted a 3.9 percent increase in undergraduate tuition rates and a five percent increase in graduate tuition rates.

“The proposed rates... are needed to fund additional cost obligations of the University,” according to a report to the trustees. “Without this additional funding, the quality of educational opportunities for students would be diminished.”

Exactly what students do the trustees intend to educate? In fall 2016, SIU suffered the largest enrollment decline in years— and that’s really saying something after almost twenty-five years of steep drops in the student headcount. The Carbondale campus now has fewer students since 1964, and it’s lost thirty-six percent of its student population since the 1991 enrollment peak.

The trustees’ solution: Make SIU more expensive.

That, of course, flies in the face of every established economic law, especially the one about demand and cost: If fewer people are buying a product or service, the marketplace probably considers it overpriced.

In fairness, by passing tuition increases the trustees tried to address a different issue: In Springfield, Gov. Bruce Rauner refuses to sign a budget unless the General Assembly first passes a series of union-busting laws that no legislature dominated by Democrats, as Illinois’s is, would for a second consider. This has largely turned off the tap of state money flowing to Illinois’s public universities.

Furthermore, everybody can brace themselves for the Trump administration in Washington to crush federal higher-education funding.

Thus, the trustees found themselves in a legitimately difficult financial position. But saving the quality of educational opportunities wasn’t the goal of this tuition increase— that assertion was intellectually dishonest. This tuition increase was really intended to raise enough revenue to avoid having to lay off university employees.

That decision, however, revealed badly misplaced priorities on the trustees’ parts. As bad as the budget situation is, plummeting enrollment is SIU’s immediate existential threat.

Growth can offset a lot of the university’s financial problems. Rising enrollment, obviously, increases the number of students who pay to attend SIU, and that makes a huge impact on university revenue. It eventually means more alumni available to donate to or advocate on behalf of the university. Meanwhile, a bigger student body increases the university’s clout in Springfield, generating at least a little fear that state leaders will pay electoral consequences for shortchanging SIU. And growing enrollment provides better job security for university employees than squeezing students for more money.

Raising tuition, however, sabotages these imperatives. They’re making far more difficult than necessary campus chancellor Brad Colwell’s modest if admirable goals: to increase new freshman, transfer, and graduate enrollment by at least ten percent, and bump up the retention rate of first-time freshmen from 64.3 percent to seventy percent.

A large number of SIU’s students come from close to the state’s big population center of Chicago, which is a long way from Carbondale. Dumping the university’s monetary burden on students once again will compound Southern’s fiscal woes if it encourages even more people to choose community colleges and/or universities closer to home. If higher costs keep driving students away, then continuing enrollment declines will mean less tuition and fee money, and the trustees will further mire SIU in this vicious circle.

Meanwhile, in January, the University of Illinois’s trustees, facing many of the same challenges, showed how well they understood the situation when they froze in-state tuition for the third straight year.

The SIU trustees’ actions, then, served to further narrow the cost gap— already surprisingly small at about $2,000 a year— between what once claimed it was the second jewel in the crown of Illinois’s higher-education system and the state’s flagship school in Urbana-Champaign. And it widened the gap between SIU and the University of Illinois at Chicago, which, because so many students can commute there, costs about $2,000 a year less than Southern.

Holding the line on tuition seems to work for the University of Illinois, which keeps setting new records for enrollment, and has ambitions to grow by fifteen percent to twenty-five percent during the next five to ten years. This, despite— or because of— a persistent party-school reputation that used to belong to SIU... when SIU was still growing. This, despite a high-profile shooting death in the Campustown district last fall. And this, despite the state budget deadlock.

 

It’s past time to put aside Saluki pride and SIU’s longstanding tradition of antipathy toward everything Illini-related and learn from the University of Illinois. The numbers show what that university system is getting right— and what SIU is doing dead wrong.