Editorial— Poshard and Cheng: Pathetic Excuses for SIU’s Enrollment Death Spiral

Editorial— Poshard and Cheng: Pathetic Excuses for SIU’s Enrollment Death Spiral

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From 2001 to 2010, eight of twelve four-year public universities grew-- and of the rest, none shrank
Chris Wissmann

From 2001 to 2010, eight of twelve four-year public universities grew-- and of the rest, none shrank faster than SIU’s Carbondale campus. The Carbondale campus’s monumental decrease of 970 total students between fall 2011 and fall 2012 constitutes almost a five percent drop, by far the largest collapse in recent history. Since enrollment peaked in 1991, the campus population has declined by 6,022 students, more than twenty-four percent.

Back in mid-August at a presentation to the Carbondale Chamber of Commerce, SIU system president Glenn Poshard gave a series of excuses for the university’s two-decade enrollment collapse. Last week, Carbondale-campus chancellor Rita Cheng cluelessly parrorted many of them in her state of the campus address. These excuses are easy to refute.

  • The Economic Recession

Baloney. Enrollment tends to rise during bad economic times-- at least at other universities-- as unemployed people with few job prospects head back to school to ride out the recession and retrain themselves for the new economy that tends to come with a recovery.

Between when the recession hit in 2008 and 2010, the last year for which the Illinois Board of Higher Education has compiled an online abstract of comprehensive enrollment data, student headcounts went up at eight of Illinois’s twelve public universities, including all three University of Illinois campuses and SIU’s Edwardsville campus. The total population at all of Illinois’s four-year universities rose from 202,127 to 205,023. It’s also gone up, fast, at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that since 2008, overall nationwide university and college enrollment has increased, and it’s on a sharp incline at public four-year universities in the Midwest. Just because SIU’s Carbondale campus has so far valiantly resisted the trend of successful growth doesn’t make this a valid excuse.

  • Stagnant Population Base in Southern Illinois;
  • Decline in Number of High-school Students Attending SIU from Southern Illinois;
  • Out-of-state Universities Aggressively Recruiting in Southern Illinois

This hasn’t stopped Southeast Missouri State University, which is only an hour away, essentially part of the same region, and claims the second-fastest growth rate of any university in that state. SEMO went from 10,477 students in 2006 to 11,510 in 2011, a gain of 1,033, and just set another first-day enrollment record in 2012. (SEMO’s final numbers come thirty days into the semester, not ten, as Illinois’s universities do.) During that same time SIU’s Carbondale on-campus enrollment went from 18,548 students to 17,815-- a loss of 733.

A good number of SEMO’s students might just come from the Southern Illinois pool in which SIU used to quite effectively recruit. But did entire departments at SIU not realize that SEMO was beginning the major expansion that became the River Campus performing-arts college? Did entire SIU departments fail to see how this could hurt enrollment on the Carbondale campus and fail to create strategies to grow in the face of that competition? The numbers say yes. Shame on the entire Department of Enrollment Management.

  • Stagnant Growth in Number of High-school Students

Despite the alleged dearth of high-school students, other universities are finding ways to grow. From 2001 to 2010, eight of Illinois’s twelve public universities saw enrollment increases. Though SEMO may have seen a decline in first-day enrollment for freshmen (the final numbers there remain forthcoming), the Cape Girardeau school still managed to set a first-day overall enrollment record this fall.

Figures from SIU’s Edwardsville campus don’t reflect a stagnant number of high-school students-- while Edwardsville finally snapped its string of total-enrollment records this fall, it managed to set a record for freshman enrollment. Or consider the University of Illinois: The state’s flagship school system hit a record with forty-eight-thousand freshmen applications (for only 10,200 openings)-- a six percent increase in freshmen applications from last year. If only three percent of those students who could not get into the U of I came to SIU, enrollment would have increased-- but SIU couldn’t even do that. How pathetic.

  • Uncertainty of State Finances / Declining State Support;
  • Elimination of Funding for Veterans;
  • Steep Decline in Federal Funding to Support Student Grant and Loan Programs

These are problems at every four-year university in Illinois. Again, despite the loss of state, federal, and veteran funding, most of Illinois’s twelve public universities, including SIU’s Edwardsville campus, saw enrollment increases from 2001 to 2010, and overall state university enrollment grew. To blame failure on a level playing field where others have found success is plain lame.

  • Marketing and In-state Competition

To his credit, Poshard often does a great job of articulating diagnoses that, frankly, should have been obvious to all of his predecessors since 1991, and here he is again correct: SIU has done a terrible job of marketing itself. That, however, is not even an excuse for an excuse for doing a terrible job of marketing SIU during the six years of his presidency-- including through a $2 million marketing contract with the Lipman Hearne marketing firm, during which SIU may have set an all-time record for declining enrollment.

  • Declining Number of International Students

Not true. Credit where credit is due: One of the few, small bright spots at SIU has been the uptick in international enrollment, which rose from 1,196 in 2009 to 1,326 in 2011. In 2012, the number jumped again, by sixteen percent. Why is international enrollment an excuse for a shrinking student body when it actually produced enrollment gains? SIU administrators need to take a few classes with the Khan Academy on Youtube.

  • Declining Number of Community College Transfers

There is no good reason for SIU’s Carbondale campus to attract a smaller number of community-college transfers, even if the overall pool is shrinking-- and the numbers indicate that it’s not. Total community college enrollment in Illinois grew from 357,157 in 2008 to 379,736 in 2010. Between 2001 and 2010, the number of students in Illinois’s community colleges increased by twelve percent.

At the risk of redundancy, eight of Illinois’s twelve public universities, including SIU’s Edwardsville campus, saw enrollment increases from 2001 to 2010. They must have built some of their enrollment by attracting community-college transfers. This excuse doesn’t wash.

  • Increasing Bachelors and Masters Degree Offerings on Community College Campuses

This is a true threat-- why should students shell out four-year university tuition rates when community colleges (which sometimes partner with legitimate four-year universities) can offer the same degrees for less money? But that’s where SIU must properly market its many qualities-- a beautiful, rural setting with great urbane amenities, top-notch programs, and a huge alumni network that can hook up recent graduates with good job connections, to name just three.

But these community-college opportunities are a rotten deal when the bachelor and master courses are actually provided by ripoff diploma mills that charge ridiculous tuition rates for worthless degrees. Here SIU has done a terrible job, not just of marketing itself, but of educating unsuspecting community-college students about the pitfalls into which they are sinking. And SIU (along with other Illinois public universities, by the way) obviously hasn’t sufficiently shamed the community colleges that whore themselves out to shady for-profit “colleges” and allow their students to get reamed in the process. Poshard, to his credit, often speaks out about this issue, but apparently to little effect.

  • SIU’s Disproportionate Male/Female Campus Population

This probably has been an issue since the 1960s, when the U.S. government allowed male college students to receive student deferments from the Vietnam War-era military draft. SIU had a reputation as the cheapest and easiest Illinois university to get into, so men flocked here. Women were not subject to the draft and didn’t come in equal numbers.

No question, whatever the initial cause, SIU needs to increase its appeal to women-- the total number of women who attended SIU dropped from 9,446 in 2007 to 9,092 in 2011. Crime and public safety, whether real or perceived, probably are serious impediments to attracting female students, something Poshard addressed during his Carbondale Chamber presentation (and more about that later).

Still, it’s worth noting that women actually have grown as a percentage of the student body since 2007, from 45.02 percent to 45.88 percent. While those percentages are moving in the right direction, they are coming because the number of men has decreased faster than the number of women-- not because of healthy, balanced, overall university growth.

It’s also worth noting that when SIU grew to its enrollment peak in 1991, men outnumbered women by 14,769 to 10,100. That was not a good thing, but it didn’t impede growth then, so it’s a sorry excuse today.

  • SIU’s Party-school Image

At SIU’s growth peak in 1991, the university didn’t just have a party-school image-- it had a party-school reality. For better or worse, that drew thousands of students to the campus, and major festivals like Halloween and Springfest became huge tourist attractions. The university and city eliminated those festivals with clouds of teargas and undertook a giant campaign to demolish the party-school image. They successfully replaced it, but with nothing: I participated in an SIU strategic-plan lens group for external relations that was told the university doesn’t have a party-school image-- in fact, it has no image. If a party-school image is a poor reason to come to a university, at least it’s a reason. Lacking that, students don’t know what to think about SIU, if they bother to do so at all. Enrollment figures suggest that increasingly, they don’t.

By the way, the Princeton Review just ranked the nation’s top-twenty party schools, and SIU didn’t make the list. Some that did certainly are embarrassments to higher education, but there’s also wonderful, prestigious company among the Princeton Review’s top-twenty party schools that SIU should feel proud to join, including three terrific state flagship universities: the University of Iowa (number two in the party ranking, but the nation’s number one creative-writing programs), the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (number four for partying), and the University of Wisconsin-Madison (number thirteen).

Despite its growing reputation as a party school, enrollment at the U of I rose by 4,042 students between 1996 and 2012 while SIU’s fell by 3,016 students. This year, enrollment at the U of I rose by 277 students, setting a new record at the Urbana-Champaign campus. SIU, meanwhile, suffered the biggest enrollment drop in recent history, shedding 970 students.

Meanwhile, from 2008 to 2010 enrollment rose every year at the University of Iowa, and enrollment grew three of the four years between 2007 and 2010 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

It goes to show that schools can grow when their students have fun-- and if students get a world-class education along the way, the universities they attend needn’t suffer image problems.

  • Crime in Carbondale

I will never argue that Carbondale has too little crime; the city and university must work far harder and smarter to make all residents safer.

But crime in Carbondale doesn’t even begin to compare to what Chicago is facing. That city is going through one of its worst crime waves since Al Capone. According to the Christian Science Monitor, in Chicago this year, literally more people-- a lot of them innocent children and citizens who just caught stray bullets fired during street-gang wars-- have been murdered than American troops have perished in Afghanistan. Yet for the last several years, Chicago State University and the University of Illinois’s Chicago campus both grew. (While enrollment slipped slightly at the UIC in fall 2012, that wasn’t due to reduced demand; the UIC has talked for months about intentionally reducing admissions after having trouble dealing with a burgeoning student body. In any event, this semester still marks the second-biggest enrollment in UIC history.)

  • Litter

I will never argue that Carbondale has too little litter, particularly along the Route 13 corridor that takes so many perspective students into town from Interstate 57. Poshard, by the way, deserves credit for putting together a large, regional cleanup effort with the Illinois Department of Transportation and other partners; I was once a participant. The program removed a lot of trash from public roadways, but enrollment continued to fall.

In any event, the trash about which Poshard complained isn’t so easy to see from a vehicle driving at fifty-five miles per hour on a state highway. Enrollment at both Chicago State University and the University of Illinois’s Chicago campus has grown in recent years-- and good luck finding one city block near those schools with less loose trash than the entire eighteen-mile stretch between Marion and Carbondale. The plurality of SIU’s students who come from the Chicago area are used to seeing far worse, so nobody can honestly believe that litter plays a serious factor in a perspective student’s choice to attend SIU.

Enough

SIU has many fantastic programs and amenities. The only way increased enrollment fails to materialize is when the university does a lazy, incompetent job of marketing itself-- or when the students who do show up leave because they are poorly treated or unqualified for college in the first place.

Too many other universities are facing impediments to enrollment growth. In too many cases, they are not making excuses and living with failure-- they are overcoming challenges similar to the ones Poshard and Cheng say have stymied SIU. This campus’s inability to learn from how other schools are thriving in the face of adversity reflects poorly on SIU, and the nonstop, whining excuses set a terrible example for the rapidly shrinking student body that does come here.

No more excuses. Poshard, Cheng, and the university’s trustees need to shut up and immediately fix the problem or leave so that competent leaders can step in and restore this long-languishing university to greatness.