Recruitment becoming more difficult amid budget cuts, university officials say

Pulliam Hall. Daily Egyptian file photo.

Pulliam Hall. Daily Egyptian file photo.

By Marnie Leonard

As the university continues to deal with an unprecedented state budget impasse approaching the two-year mark and SIU President Randy Dunn’s recent announcement suggesting $30 million in cuts for the Carbondale campus, prospective students have been choosing to go to school elsewhere.

Susan Davenport, the director of choral activities in the School of Music, said after Dunn made his announcement her college lost its top recruit.

The student, who was coming from out-of-state and would have been enrolling as a freshman, was “exceptionally high achieving, both academically and musically” and told recruiters he was considering other schools in light of the university’s financial situation, Davenport said.


“We are still doing our due diligence with this student to counteract the negative publicity he and his family had heard and encouraging him to keep SIU as his top choice,” Davenport said. “But it’s just been difficult to recruit.”

This difficulty is reflected in the university’s enrollment, which hit its lowest point since 1965 in the fall of 2016 semester, and in spring 2017 saw a decrease of 7.4 percent compared with 2016.

Terri Harfst, director of financial aid, said last May she started making some changes.

“This isn’t going to turn something around tomorrow,” Harfst said. “This is a long process, but our admission’s staff is doing exactly what they need to be doing.”

Her first priority was to fully staff the admissions office, which now has eight full-time recruiters. Prior to 2016, Harfst said SIU had not visited some high schools in Illinois for a year and a half. Now, admissions staff visit high schools and community colleges in Illinois at a minimum of once a year, and major schools see recruiters once per semester.

Harfst said admissions also started purchasing more ACT and SAT standardized test results last May. When students take these standardized tests, universities are able to purchase their names to send them recruitment materials. Previously, the office had only bought names of high school seniors; now, freshman, sophomore and junior names are in the mix.

For the 2016-2017 school year, Harfst said admissions purchased 350,000 names at $0.42 each.


“By the time we would have started recruiting them, they already had some schools in mind,” she said. “If you’re not recruiting them at a younger age, you’re losing some of them.”

In February, the Board of Trustees approved in-state tuition rates for out-of-state students, meaning all incoming undergraduates in the fall of 2017 will pay in-state rates, as students from bordering states already do.

Harfst said this is a major recruitment tool for admissions, and the office has expanded recruitment efforts and test name-purchasing to California, Texas, Ohio and Florida.

Still, Harfst said the budget impasse has been a huge challenge for recruiters, and they hear “misperceptions” about SIU when they travel to schools.

“People think we’re going away, and we’re not,” Harfst said. “But we hear these things and sometimes my staff can’t control it.”

Recruiters hear concerns about academic quality and safety on campus, which Harfst said can only be combatted by the university community talking more positively about SIU.

“The more everyone knows about some of the challenges that we’re facing, the more they can help us bring these students and parents around to the fact that we’re not going anywhere, our academic quality is outstanding and their student is going to get a great education here,” Harfst said.

After Dunn’s announcement suggesting the $30 million in cuts, interim Chancellor Brad Colwell responded with a breakdown for the campus budget cuts.

Included in Colwell’s cuts were $1.2 million from partially self-supporting units like the Center for Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences, WSIU Public Broadcasting and Counseling and Psychological Services.

Directors of a majority of these centers interviewed by the Daily Egyptian have said the outlined cuts would significantly harm their units, and in some cases would lead to their closure. Many have maintained that if their centers were closed, it would affect enrollment because students who want to work and do research there will go elsewhere.

Harfst, however, said she doesn’t foresee these cuts being a problem for recruitment.

“Students interested in undergraduate research will always have the opportunity for it,” Harfst said. “Just because one center goes away doesn’t mean that experience goes away on this campus.”

Colwell’s statement also said the university state travel budget, totaling $535,000, would be eliminated immediately and no traveling would take place on state money.

Harfst said this hasn’t affected the admissions office because its travel budget comes from local money rather than state funding.

Individual colleges also have recruiters, whose budgets are whatever amount the department allocates them.

Davenport said the School of Music, which has a very small amount allotted for recruitment to begin with, has been hurt by the elimination of travel funding.

“Our ensembles can’t travel on tours to schools to perform,” Davenport said. “Faculty members also get out to perform less when they have to travel on their own money, and performing is how we create a buzz about what’s going on here. If no one can hear us, then the buzz dies down.”

At an April 13 meeting between faculty and administration, interim Provost Susan Ford said her office is predicting a lower enrollment for the fall 2017 semester based on markers like housing contracts and registration for student orientations.

“We are swimming against the tsunami of bad press from the state budget crisis,” Ford said. “This harmed us last year, and we know it’s harming us this year.”

Ford said retention efforts are just as important as recruitment. Every student who sends their ACT or FAFSA to SIU is shown the university’s retention and 4- and 6-year graduation rates, which Ford says are very low. Ford said until those numbers are higher, recruitment will continue to be a challenge.

A retention task-force that met from 2012 to 2014 gave a list of suggestions to Ford’s office, which she said have been mostly implemented.

These included having more invasive, targeted advising, a better adviser-to-student ratio, targeting populations that are particularly at risk like first-generation students, and developing programming to help those at-risk students succeed.

Going into the fall 2016 semester, Ford said junior and senior retention rates had increased, which she said is an indicator those efforts are starting to pay off.

“This isn’t going to offset our losses in freshmen yet, but I am hoping that when the state rights its ship, we will be positioned to really surge ahead,” Ford said. “We will be ready to recover our enrollment numbers.”

Staff writer Marnie Leonard can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @marsuzleo.

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