Chloe Schobert | @chloscho_art2020
This fall, SIU’s enrollment numbers showed a 2.8% drop from last year.
Despite the continued decline in enrollment, SIU’s director of undergraduate admissions, John Frost, said he was extremely pleased with this year’s numbers, since the university was expecting the numbers to be down between eight and 10 percent.
“For us to be only down 2.8% in a pandemic, I mean come on, […] that was a win for us, to be honest,” Frost said.
Frost was appointed as admissions director in March 2020. He previously worked in the broadcast journalism field, but transitioned to higher education when he became a recruiter. He moved on to hold administrative positions in admissions at different universities before coming to SIU.
Frost said he was also excited about this fall’s increases in first-time college students and students from southern Illinois.
First-time college student enrollment increased 31.2% to 1,361 students, and 202 first-time students (including transfers) are from the southern Illinois area, a 32.9% increase, according to an enrollment fact sheet provided by SIU’s chief communications officer, Rae Goldsmith.
This year also saw an increase in the freshman-to-sophomore retention rate, which currently stands at a 20-year high of 80.6%, according to the enrollment fact sheet.
SIU chancellor Austin Lane, also in his first year at the university, attributed the retention rate increase to face-to-face initiatives held before the pandemic, as well as faculty working with students.
“Now we’re going to have to do whatever we did times two because of the pandemic,” Lane said. “Every support service that we have on campus, every, whether it’s tutoring or academic support or student life, effort is going to have to be critical in helping our students move forward so that we can retain them at those rates that we’re seeing now.”
Lane attributed the overall enrollment numbers to new strategies used this year, including the decision to make ACT/SAT scores optional.
“I think test optional opened up the eyes of a few students across not only southern Illinois but across the state,” Lane said.
Frost said it took all of the departments on campus working together, along with the community, to get the enrollment numbers seen this fall.
“As we all have heard, it takes a village, right, but I think it takes a university,” Frost said. “It takes a university to be able to provide that experience of a community, that you have a place here in southern Illinois.”
Lane said the university’s target area for recruitment is the southern Illinois region.
“We really believe to increase our enrollment, we have to start at home and that means we’ve got to recruit students that are right here in our backyard,” Lane said. “Whether they’re from Carterville or Carbondale or Murphysboro or Marion, […] you name it, all the way up to Nashville or Carlisle. We’ve got to claim this area as ours.”
Lane said SIU will be launching a partnership with Carbondale Elementary School District superintendent Daniel Booth to start forming connections with local students early.
“Our university is going to be a bridge to students as early as the third grade,” Lane said.
The university will be using summer camps and STEM camps to get elementary students on campus and interested early on in different careers.
Lane said SIU students will also be helping with the partnership and he will be working with leaders of registered student organizations on campus to set up reading programs with local students.
“[They’re going] to read to students, to volunteer service hours to students, so it’s a two way street. We’re not just recruiting to get students, we’re trying to build relationships with those students early so they will select us in the future,” Lane said.
Frost said SIU’s engagement strategy is the number one thing that gives SIU an advantage over other schools.
“We’re not gonna be order takers, we’re gonna be dream makers,” Frost said.
Frost said this means instead of just handing a student a pamphlet for the program they are interested in, recruiters will ask students what the program looks like for them and what they want to accomplish.
“We want to get to understand who you are and what you’re looking for and make sure it’s a great fit,” Frost said.
Frost said even prior to the pandemic, the admissions office was engaging with prospective students virtually.
“So when the pandemic hit it wasn’t as earth-shattering for us as it was for other people,” Frost said. “All our coordinators were already prepared to be able to engage this way.”
To help increase enrollment in the future and develop strategies to do so, Lane set up an enrollment committee, chaired by Frost and Lori Stettler, vice chancellor of student affairs.
The committee will be holding its first meeting Sept. 22, according to Frost.
The committee is made up of around 50 members from the campus and the community, Frost said.
“Enrollment is what we call mission number one at the university right now; it’s everyone’s job, we’re saying, to be a recruiter, to be a person that’s knowledgeable about how students can get into SIU,” Lane said. “It’s everyone’s role, not just the admissions director or mine.”
Lane said the committee will meet frequently to strategize and monitor progress in each of the areas the committee is seeking to increase.
Within the committee, there are four task forces: the enrollment funnel task force, the strategic planning task force, the community outreach and branding task force and the internal events task force.
Frost said the enrollment funnel task force will look at the student experience from initial interest in SIU to registering for classes and look at how to improve in that area.
The strategic planning task force will look at planning ahead so the university is prepared to deal with situations like the current pandemic, Frost said.
The community outreach and branding task force will be focused on how the university and community can work together to attract interested students.
The internal events task force will be focused on utilizing campus events to get prospective and current students to enroll or stay at SIU.
Lane said the committee will be holding all-university Zoom efforts later on to share the strategies being implemented and receive feedback.
“Sometimes we’re the only ones that know about [our strategies] and that’s our own fault,” Lane said. “We need to be communicating our efforts to the entire community so that they can help spread the word.”
Frost said he hopes to see an enrollment increase next year.
“I would love to be up next year, that’s what I would love to be, but we also got to be realistic,” Frost said. “[We’ve] never been in this before, so we don’t really know what this looks like.”
Frost said the university has a plan and they are looking at a possible 3% increase in freshman numbers, transfer numbers and overall enrollment.
“If we can get to that 3%, we can land in a really solid place,” Frost said.
Managing Editor Rana Schenke can be reached at [email protected].
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