Has SIU Carbondale stopped the bleeding?

‘We are gaining traction and moving in the right direction,’ says Chancellor Dunn as enrollment decline slows

Despite continuing declines in enrollment, the sun appears to be shining again on Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. (Twitter/SIUC)

Despite continuing declines in enrollment, the sun appears to be shining again on Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. (Twitter/SIUC)

By Ted Cox

Southern Illinois University Carbondale reported declining enrollment again this fall in figures released Wednesday, but the pace slowed and positioned the campus for a comeback, according to a top university official.

“We are gaining traction and moving in the right direction,” said Chancellor John Dunn.

Total enrollment slipped to 11,695, down 8.75 percent from last year’s 12,817. But causes for optimism remained even in those figures, as last year’s enrollment was down 12 percent from the 14,554 the previous year.

Dunn credited the hard work of faculty and staff with slowing this year’s decline, which was less than hard been feared. According to Dunn, graduate and transfer students remained at the same level from last fall to this year, while first-time students dropped by fewer than 100 to 1,037, 8.5 percent lower than last year.

“We graduated a relatively large class of nearly 2,600 students in the spring,” Dunn said in a statement accompanying a news release on the fall enrollment. “We knew we were starting from a significant deficit at the same time we are re-engineering our recruitment and retention efforts.”

He attributed the robust and consistent enrollment of transfer students to “outstanding efforts to connect with our community-college partners and identify pathways for our transfer students.”

The average ACT score of incoming freshmen rose to 24.4, up from last year’s 23.7, which was the best SIUC had posted in 20 years. The freshman-to-sophomore retention rate also climbed from 71 percent last year to 75 percent this fall, meaning of course that three-quarters of last year’s freshmen returned to campus this year.

“Enrollment is as much about retaining students as it is about attracting new students,” Dunn said. “We are working hard at both. We are focusing on giving students professional-level, hands-on experience to complement their coursework, and we are adding new, high-demand programs in fields like nursing and business analytics.

“We’re also continuing our focus on support services such as academic advising,” he added, “and this fall we’ve opened the First Saluki Center to support first-generation students.”

SIUC has positioned itself as a hands-on university for training specialized professionals, and that’s reflected in the top 10 majors: animal science, automotive technology, aviation flight, biological sciences, business, criminology and criminal justice, mechanical engineering, psychology, radiologic sciences, and zoology. SIU’s aviation department is booming, and it also has programs in blacksmithing and brewing, offered through the Fermentation Science Institute.

The university has been on a steady decline since enrollment peaked at 25,000 in 1991, but it has been particularly snake-bit in recent years. Former SIU President Randy Dunn left last year for the Edwardsville campus after getting caught in backroom deals trying to redirect $5 million away from the Carbondale campus. Chancellor Carlo Montemagno died almost a year ago after leading efforts to alter the university’s course and change its momentum.

His successor Chancellor Dunn suggested there were justified causes for optimism in this fall’s enrollment figures, saying, “The picture for first-time students and graduate students is significantly improved over the last two years, signaling that we are gaining traction and moving in the right direction.”

Dunn said in a complementary blog post that he’d been inspired by a chat with Gov. Pritzker at the State Fair in Springfield this summer. “He offered some wisdom on the challenges of turning around the state,” Dunn wrote, “noting that it’s a lot faster to go downhill than it is to climb back up.”

SIU closed two tower dormitories last year, but rather than cram students into the rest of the campus it reopened them this fall and offered rooms as singles for the price of a double.

According to university figures, this year’s enrollment is about one-quarter minority students, and international students make up about 8 percent on the student body.