Cheng: Enrollment growth is long-term

It may take some time to raise the university’s enrollment.

Chancellor Rita Cheng said in her Sept. 5 State of the University Address that one factor affecting SIU’s recent enrollment decline is the fact that the present junior and senior classes were small when the students enrolled as freshmen. However, Cheng said factors such as transfer student enrollment and part- to full-time student status changes affect the size of every class level at the university.

With this fall’s decline in transfer enrollment and the decrease in freshmen, Cheng said increasing enrollment can be a long-term strategy.

“I think all of the colleges will tell you that the junior and senior classes are smaller right now. Freshman and sophomore classes are larger … Over time, it will counter the softness we saw back in the freshmen in ’08 and ’09 and the transfers in recent years,” Cheng said.

Advance registration numbers from Sept. 3 show the freshman class had 2,916 students registered, 2,216 sophomores, 2,634 juniors and 4,430 seniors. Although only 93 percent of students were registered at the time these numbers were released, each class was down from the same time a year earlier by between 170 and 263 students. The group that showed the largest decline, according to the numbers, was the sophomore class with 263 fewer students enrolled compared to the same date in fall 2011.

The imbalance in class size, Cheng explained, is because of the amount of students who transfer in and out of the university. She said it is also affected by students who start at the university full- or part-time and then change their status. It is also because some students attend the university longer than the traditional four years, she said.

This year, 260 fewer students transferred into the university than last fall. Thus, those classes might also not be as large as originally expected when they reach the junior and senior level. Cheng said enrollment might take a while to raise because of these factors.

She said the university has had two major downturns — one in transfer enrollment and the other in first-time freshman enrollment.

“If those inflows (of first-time freshmen and transfer students) are soft, they’re not only going to affect overall enrollment in that current year, but in future years because of the ways that they work through the pipeline,” Cheng said.

She said the university had 1,800 transfer students at the undergraduate level this year. About 280 came in as seniors, more than 700 were of junior status, 500 were sophomores and 250 were freshmen, Cheng said.

“They’re coming in after an associate degree, so the traditional would be transferring as junior status, but a lot of them are coming in before that,” she said.

While the amount of incoming students is a greater factor of overall enrollment, the number of seniors who graduate also affects the amount of undergraduates at the university. Although the senior class was nearly twice as large as the sophomore class according to the advance registration numbers, Cheng said many of those students will not graduate.

Advance registration numbers show the senior class, at 96 percent registered, had 4,430 students, which is down from 2011’s 4,621 students at the same time. Cheng explained that not all of those seniors will graduate because a senior is someone who has made it to 90 completed credit hours. If a student is only attending school part-time, she said, he or she won’t graduate with the rest of that class.

Yet another factor, Cheng emphasized, is the amount of students who leave SIU and transfer to another college or university.

“We’re very porous,” she said. “That’s the kind of institution we are. We’re one of access and opportunity.”

Cheng said she attended seven different institutions in her own collegiate career.

“I was not a traditional student, and I was very fortunate to have a university nearby when I moved around the country with my husband,” she said. “And if I didn’t have universities that took me on as a non-traditional student and accepted transfer credit, I wouldn’t have been able to finish. And SIU is that kind of university.”

Another point Cheng made in her address was that enrollment is affected because of factors outside of the university’s control such as the economy and financial aid availability. There were 2,095 students who enrolled at SIU in the spring of 2012 who were academically-eligible but did not graduate or re-enroll at SIU this fall, according to information obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Cheng said that is not an unusual amount of students to leave the university.

“(SIU is) an institution where you have students stop-out, work full-time and decide to come back later. The real question is ultimately, do those students graduate? And we track students on a path of six years, and we find that many students stay with us on a part-time basis and graduate.”

Cheng said enrollment management is a very complex process, and there are hundreds of people at the university working to increase the outcome.

“But there’s no magic to this,” she said. “The decision process the students have to decide on to stay at SIU is complex … and we’re all committed to doing the very best that we can.”

Cheng said the university does not have information regarding where all students transfer to when they leave SIU, but she said some information does come to the university after they have been at another institution and many students who leave SIU go on to graduate.

Although Cheng said enrollment is not something that can be immediately increased, Provost John Nicklow said the future of SIU enrollment looks good.

“It looks positive in a couple years out because of the growth in freshmen coupled with transfer student intake and efforts to increase retention and completion of current students,” he stated in an email.

Rod Sievers, university spokesman, said solving SIU’s enrollment process is not something that will be immediate, though.

“The key is to grow the freshman class year to year,” he said in an email. “Indeed, much of the university’s marketing efforts are directed toward recruitment of new, first-time students. Attracting transfer students is another facet of our recruitment program.”

Sievers said the university’s retention rate is also key to enrollment. Cheng said SIU has a retention track record of around 60 percent.

“So, that means that you have a number of students that leave to go to other institutions for a variety of reasons,” she said. “Some of them, we’re happy to retain students. Others of them, we’re happy that we could give them a good experience for the time that they were here.”

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