Column: How to boost enrollment

By Sam Beard, Student Trustee

Why is enrollment dropping? Why do students choose to go to one university over another? What will boost enrollment?

These are some of the guiding questions that a lot of us have been grappling with over the past several weeks, months, years, decades.

However, the answers we have been afforded by the administration are inadequate a best.

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Chancellor Montemagno has said on multiple occasions that enrollment is dropping because of the quality of education offered at the institution, even going so far as to compare the value of an SIU degree to a rusted-out junker.

Other administrators have maintained it is because of the alleged unsightliness of the towers.

Still, others contend it is because we have lost our reputation as a party school. I will give them that, Carbondale is certainly not as lit as it used to be.

But all of these reasons are wholly inadequate at providing a systematic understanding of the issue at hand, and one in particular is just straight-up insulting.

Enrollment is dropping due to of the lack of honest leadership on the Carbondale campus and because the Board of Trustees keeps raising the cost of attendance.

We have become almost numb to this stark pattern of short-term chancellors wrecking-house and jumping-ship.

If one is to count President Randy Dunn when he so dutifully fulfilled the role of chancellor (while still serving as head-of-system) a couple of years ago, over the past 15 years we have had nine different chancellors.

Nine.

This has provided no cohesive vision and an extreme lack of administrative accountability at the SIU system’s flagship campus.

Well, now that we have a chancellor with a vision it is one that unfortunately bares no grasp on our institutional context.

Last Thursday at a meeting with the faculty from his proposed School of Humanities, the chancellor insisted that the skeptical professors just need to “trust” him with this whole thing.

I gotta say, that was a pretty hard pill to swallow the day after a bombshell investigation by the Daily Egyptian into Montemagno’s nepotism.

As much as I wish I could, the trust just ain’t there.

But perhaps a more significant factor in our falling enrollment figures than inept leadership is the skyrocketing cost of attendance.

A nationwide study by Ruffalo Noel Levitz, a higher education enrollment management consulting firm (yes, those exist), found the number one factor for incoming freshmen in deciding where to go is cost of attendance.

Shocking, I know.

But over the past fifteen years the Board of Trustees has more than doubled the cost of attendance at SIU!

The pattern has gone something like this: the board hikes the cost, fewer students enroll as a result, to offset the lower tuition revenue the board hikes the cost again and even fewer students enroll as a result the following year.  

Repeat this process for a decade or two and you are left with a severely damaged university.

So, what do we do about this? We must drastically lower the cost of attendance.

When Bethany College of West Virginia cut its tuition in ‘02-‘03 by 42% from $20,650 to $12,000, their freshman class increased 60%.

A similar move by the board, coupled with an all-out marketing blitz along the lines of “Education is a human right, that’s why SIU offers the best schooling at the lowest possible cost” would make national news.

The influx of students would offset the drop in per-student revenue, benefitting both the university and the students (not to mention the local economy).

Satisfied students will tell all their homies back home that SIU is the place to be and then the youngsters flock.

The Towers will be maxed-out because we slashed the extraordinarily high rates down to a more reasonable level and BOOM:  SIU is a party school again.

This isn’t rocket science, people.

To conclude, it’s not just an enrollment problem, it is retention too.

Our four year graduation-rate is 25%. For black students that rate is even lower. How is this even possible?

It’s because students are reeled-in, encouraged to sign to dotted-line and then left to their own devices. Plus, the institution is not providing the type of support that underprivileged students deserve.

My problem with the reorganization of our university is not that it too drastic.

My problem is that it doesn’t go far enough.

It fails to provide solutions to any of the real issues plaguing our campus.

We need warm and caring leadership, not authoritarian impositions.

We need insightful interpretation of our rich institutional history, not made-up claims about the lack of synergy on campus.

We need groundbreaking student support structures, not just take their money and run.

We need to make education affordable again and not raise tuition every chance that we get. 

To the pro-reorganization camp that stands against business-as-usual: What is it that you understand as business-as-usual and how does this restructuring in any way, shape or form address our current sickness?

Student Trustee Sam Beard can be reached at [email protected] or by phone at (618) 453-8418. His office is located in the Registered Student Organization Suite on the third floor of the Student Center and his office hours are Mondays and Thursdays: 12:30 pm – 2 pm or by appointment.

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