Job creators? Look to state universities

SIU enrollment drop at Carbondale campus sends economic ripples across southern Illinois

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By Ted Cox

Southern Illinois University President Randy Dunn recalls when the state had one of the best public systems of higher education in the nation.

"You don't even have to go back 25 years to where Illinois was looked at as one of the top three public systems of higher ed in the country," Dunn said, citing Wisconsin and California's two separate state systems as Illinois's only real competitors. "We were there at the top," he added. "And through what we've had happen," through decades of disinvestment topped off with a crippling budget crisis the last few years, "that's not the case anymore. And we've unfortunately let that luster be lost. So it's going to take us years of help, support, confidence building to be seen as an investment for the state to build that back, and I hope we can get that done."

Dunn is hoping for it, and college towns across the state are counting on it. Universities and, to a lesser extent, community colleges are huge economic engines, drawing not just students with their free-spending dollars but also faculty members and their families, as well as associated businesses and cultural institutions. Small towns across the state have suffered from job losses over the last decades, with many still striving to recover from the Great Recession 10 years ago, but college towns have fared better than most.

"It's a huge economic driver," Dunn said, "in some cases the largest economic driver in some of these towns. And it provides a buffering against the winds of the economy. As you see the economy ebb and flow, college towns tend to stay pretty stable.

"And I think that was put at risk during the budget crisis," Dunn added. "And I think it got the attention of a lot of mayors and city councils and chambers of commerce ... just to see in fact how important the state universities are to a big chunk of the local economy. If you want to talk about job creators, we're it."

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"If you want to talk about job creators, we're it."

SIU President Randy Dunn (One Illinois/Zachary Sigelko)

According to Dunn, with the sole exception of Scott Air Force Base outside Belleville, SIU is the largest employer in the state south of Springfield. But it has suffered from an enrollment drop worsened by the state budget crisis in 2015 and 2016, when funding was severely curtailed if not shut off entirely. That has sent economic ripples across southern Illinois.

Dunn compared it to the adage about General Motors in Detroit: "When we sneeze, the region gets a cold."

The enrollment drop at SIU's Carbondale campus has given the surrounding area more than an economic cold.

A study released by the Illinois Economic Policy Institute last fall, "High-Impact Higher Education," said state universities and community colleges took a significant hit during the two-year budget impasse forced by Gov. Rauner and only halted last year when the General Assembly voted to override his veto. But SIU suffered worse than most, especially its Carbondale campus.

According to the study, the lack of state funding forced universities to hike tuition to make up the gap, with an average 6.7 percent increase, or about $900 a student. But tuition rose 9.5 percent at SIU — $1,147 at Carbondale and $905 at its Edwardsville sibling campus. The southern Illinois region that includes Carbondale lost 10,500 students, but the southwest Illinois region including Edwardsville actually gained 3,200. That translated into a $31 million loss to the local economy in southern Illinois, while the southwest part of the state actually gained $8 million.

"The budget impasse caused students to question whether they should attend college in Illinois," wrote the study's authors, ILEPI's Frank Manzo IV and Robert Bruno, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. They found that the state lost 18,900 students "across southern Illinois." According to Dunn, many were lost to schools in the South aggressively marketing to Illinois students, like Alabama and Mississippi.

This is not news to U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, who said he's recently talked about it with Carbondale Mayor Mike Henry. "They have on average about 50 homes for sale at any given time," Durbin said of Carbondale. "Now they have 250." Durbin said that had been brought on by the enrollment drop, and the ensuing loss of faculty and staff in a mounting crisis of confidence. "They're wondering what's tomorrow going to be like," he said, adding that he'd seen the same at Western Illinois University in Macomb.

According to Henry, the generally accepted figure is that "every student brings $10,000 out into the community, in addition to what they pay for tuition, the things they pay on campus, and that rolls over five, six, seven times. So it just has a really significant impact with the declining enrollment."

Henry added that rentals were at a 60 percent vacancy rate, where only 10 years ago rentals were at 100 percent of capacity. "So it's a huge impact," he said.

 Three houses in a row are for rent or for sale across from Buckminster Fuller's dome home in Carbondale. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Three houses in a row are for rent or for sale across from Buckminster Fuller's dome home in Carbondale. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

On a recent visit to the Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome home in a residential neighborhood in Carbondale, it was hard not to notice that three straight houses across the street were on the market for rent or sale, and the house right next door to the dome was for sale as well.

SIU Professor Kathleen Chwalisz lives in that neighborhood and has seen the difference brought on by the enrollment drop and its exponential effect on the faculty and the greater economy. "Faculty members have families and their partners have jobs and their kids go to school," Chwalisz said. "So it is an impact on the economic engine and the workforce in southern Illinois. We have lost a lot of faculty over the last several years."

The ILEPI study found the effect of the state budget on higher education caused 7,500 jobs to be lost statewide, 2,300 of those professors or other instructors making an average of $88,000 a year — with the loss particularly acute in Carbondale.

Dunn pointed out SIU provides medical services to an area of the state where doctors and clinics are more widely dispersed and sometimes not available at all in small towns, and that network is potentially threatened as well.

Dunn said stable and even increased state funding would be a benefit, but he also acknowledged that legislators are crying that the state is cash-poor and unable to sustain the level of support of 25 years ago. Dunn himself was also weakened recently when it was found he had worked behind the scenes to transfer $5 million from the Carbondale campus to Edwardsville at a time when he was publicly neutral on the proposal. He faces potential fallout for that at an SIU Board of Trustees meeting set for Wednesday.

"Is higher education a cost?" Dunn said. "Is it something that's tied around your neck as a cement block, or is it an area in which you make an investment to build the economy, to grow jobs, to bring — particularly as we think about the southern Illinois area — the quality-of-life issues to a place?"

Henry agreed, saying, "The very first thing that the state needs to do, in my opinion, is fully fund higher education, because these universities are very, very stressed."

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"The very first thing that the state needs to do, in my opinion, is fully fund higher education, because these universities are very, very stressed."

Carbondale Mayor Mike Henry (One Illinois/Zachary Sigelko)

According to the ILEPI study, "Public universities and community colleges boost the Illinois economy by $16 billion every year."

Henry said the Carbondale City Council had actually increased taxes to improve infrastructure and the look of the town, as part of its symbiotic role to make the area enticing to prospective students and those already enrolled there. It has strengthened its commitment to bike paths and other green initiatives, and with Durbin's help it's working to improve Amtrak service. "A third of our students are from the Chicago area, and they travel back and forth every weekend," Henry said, adding that they're aggravated by the City of New Orleans train, which has the worst on-time performance in the national rail system. He said Durbin is working to get the U.S. Department of Transportation to enforce laws that give passenger trains priority over freight trains — laws that are being ignored in the South, where Amtrak trains are sidetracked to let freights pass.

Henry is also planning to revive a Halloween festival this year after celebrations got out of hand and eventually led to its cancellation in years past. "Everybody's scared to death to do it," Henry said, "people my age especially because they remember it got really violent and some cars got burned and people were getting hurt." But he was adamant that it can be done responsibly and not only create a fun fest for students, but also potentially lure back some alumni.

Chwalisz cheered how SIU had already decided to close two high-rise dormitories on the east side of the Carbondale campus. "With the smaller number of students, the dorms were half-full," she said. "Campus life feels more vital when there's people around. So by closing the towers and having all the students in the dorms around the lake, I think the idea is to sort of revitalize the community feel of the campus.

"A lot of us are here for the long haul," she added. "We believe in the university. I think this is still a vital campus. I think we've got to turn things around."

Dunn also said the administration was being streamlined in keeping with the lower enrollment — a natural source of efficiency and economy. But at the same time he had to grant that — as with the proposal to shift $5 million from Carbondale to Edwardsville — that didn't help the perception problem and the "crisis of confidence" the campus is suffering through as it seeks to stop the bleeding and reverse the downward trend in enrollment.

"There's rarely any stasis," Dunn said. "You're either trying to work your way up or you're spiraling down. You don't get the luxury of being able to sit in one place. And the challenge with Carbondale is to get the direction of that turned and now moving in the upward spiral. And everybody's working very hard toward that end."