SIUC’s lack of identity caused enrollment decline

By Justin Baggott
SIU alumni from Carbondale

 

For years, SIUC administrators have been tormented by enrollment decline, and while more than 20 “solutions” have been presented in the form of promises, projections or policies, no single individual has ever come close to the root cause: the university’s lack of identity.

Unfortunately, secondary education is a business, and like any successful business, it must have some appeal to create demand.  Administrators cannot just assume “if we build it they will come.”  That strategy does not work in business and it surely will not make any college successful.

SIUC once had an identity as a fun place and received national recognition for it. The Halloween street party and, to a lesser extent, the Spring Fling were once legendary.

Campus and city administrators started their “war on fun” in the early ’90s when they curtailed the Halloween party, turning it into a violent and destructive mess.

I believe that sentiment still exists today even though you no longer see crowd-control vehicles and hundreds of police beating and spraying students with pepper spray.  There is still an obvious disconnect between the two sides.

In May 1989, the city council approved a resolution that ended the Halloween Fair Days, according to Jeff Grubbs, Carbondale’s deputy chief of police.

In 1995, SIUC started a fall break when the dorms were closed and the students were all expected to go home, according to Rod Sievers, university spokesman. In the same year, the city passed an ordinance that closed the bars on the Strip for the weekend closest to Halloween.

But it was a real mess from 1989 to 1995, before those policies were adopted. It was like big city riots with cars turned over, tons of arrests and police beatings, and property damage.  Personally, I think this is the period that locals believe is the reason Halloween was shut down.

This name recognition is not the most valuable but it is much better than the recent response I got from a Peoria firm: “I have about as much respect for that SIU degree as I would a Phoenix online degree.”

While there are some decent programs at SIUC, I think we can all agree SIUC will never be known as a top academic school in any fantasy world.  SIUC did rank tenth in popularity in one particular subset, but the cost of the program was third-highest among those ranked, according to State University, a website directory that compiles data on U.S. state universities.

SIUC is not viewed as an academic school by any stretch of imagination.  The sports programs have had some limited success but nothing sustained, and the new stadium is too small for SIU to qualify for Division I. SIUC football is not on the national radar and I would argue that it is not even a sport.

SIUC was once competitive on cost but now they are ranked 131st, behind well-known schools such as Florida, Alabama, LSU, Kansas, Auburn, Ole Miss., Georgia, Southern Miss., and Texas A&M.

The enrollment decline coincides exactly with the “war on fun” — proven by SIUC’s peak enrollment in 1991 with 21,999 students, and the steady decline that followed. SIUC had 17,815 students enroll in 2011, which is a loss of about 19 percent, according to SIUC Institutional Research and Studies.

During that same time period, a higher percentage of high school graduates were attending college, and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign had increased enrollment by about 17 percent, according to U of I’s enrollment statistics.

The enrollment issue is not one that should be taken lightly and there is no quick solution. But it can be solved.

In the past, many administrators have lost their jobs in failing to stop the decline, and while it is clearly not the result of anything the current administrators have done, the fact that they have not yet identified the core issue or taken steps to correct it proves their ineffectiveness.

Justin Baggott can be reached at southpaw@frontier.com.

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