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SIU enrollment, state aid continue to fall

By JOHN PFEIFER jpfeifer@paducahsun.com

CARBONDALE, Ill. - Tough choices lie ahead for Southern Illinois University, and they will likely result in more layoffs and fewer program offerings.

The university, like several other colleges in the state, has a compounding problem of declining enrollment and significantly reduced state aid, mainly due to the state being without a budget for two years.

SIU President Randy Dunn called the state budget impasse a "governmental abomination," which has already resulted in SIU Carbondale having 300 fewer employees than just two years ago.

SIU Carbondale Interim Chancellor Brad Colwell said that the staff reductions were made mostly by not filling open positions.

"Layoffs haven't happened until now," Colwell said, "but that's going to change."

Dunn stressed that even without reduced state aid, "(we have) a structural budget issue that has been known for some time."

He said the number of degrees offered by SIU Carbondale hasn't changed in 20 years. It currently offers 218 graduate and undergraduate degrees.

"Simply put, we now have too much programming for too few students," Dunn said during a 70-minute interview with the Sun.

Dunn recently called for $30 million in permanent cost reductions at the Carbondale campus beginning July 1.

That amount is on top of $21 million in SIU-Carbondale cost reductions last year and a $21.7 million cut from SIU-Edwardsville and the system's School of Medicine in Springfield, also within the past year.

Enrollment in Carbondale has declined in nine of the last 10 years. The lone exception came in 2014, when enrollment increased by just over 100 students.

Enrollment hit its high point in 1991, when 24,869 attended school at the Carbondale campus. The loss of associate degree programs contributed to a steady but gradual reduction over the next 20 years to 19,817 in 2011.

In the five years since, enrollment has plummeted to 15,987, a 19.3 percent decrease. Fall 2016 enrollment saw the biggest enrollment drop in school history, with 1,300 fewer students (7.5 percent) than the previous fall.

SIU is not alone among Illinois colleges. Over the past decade, enrollment at Eastern Illinois and Chicago State are both down more than 40 percent. SIU, down 23.9 percent since 2006, is joined by Northern Illinois, Western Illinois and Northeastern Illinois, all down between 20 and 25 percent.

More students are choosing universities out of state. An editorial in last weekend's Chicago Tribune stated, "In 2015, about 45 percent of high school grads bolted Illinois to attend college, compared with 29 percent who left the state in 2002."

With students leaving and enrollment declining, state aid to SIU and other state universities dropped - first gradually and then precipitously. Aid to the Southern Illinois University System peaked in 2002, when the Carbondale and Edwardsville campuses shared just over $247 million. That amount declined several percentage points each year for more than a decade until 2015.

The SIU System received over $201 million in state funding in 2015 (the last year with a budget) only to see that amount slashed to $57 million a year later.

A stopgap budget bill passed in June 2016 raised this year's funding back to just over $106 million, still a 47 percent decrease since fiscal year 2015.

The university is not the only thing suffering. The economy of Carbondale - and all of southern Illinois - has for decades depended on steady enrollment of students and steady employment by SIU.

"At a basic level, there are far fewer people spending money, which has had an extremely negative effect on our businesses," Carbondale City Manager Gary Williams said.

He cited a 2012 SIU study that showed that an average student spends $10,000 per year in the community in addition to the cost of tuition, fees, room and board.

At that rate, last fall's enrollment drop would have resulted in a $13 million one-year loss to the Carbondale and southern Illinois economy.

"People are hesitant to expand their business, move their business here, and are sometimes reluctant to even keep their business open," Williams said.

Part of the reason for the loss of students is tuition cost. Full-time undergraduate students now pay $13,481 annually for tuition and fees, a 28.8 percent increase since the 2010-11 school year.

"We don't always do a very good job of selling the value," Colwell said.

"Pricing is not the determining factor for college choice," Dunn added, citing national and regional studies. "But for the region served at SIUC there is a cost sensitivity in our backyard, in the core market served by the university."

The tension between continuing to offer 218 degrees and remaining a well-respected research institution has created an untenable situation. Yet Colwell emphasized research would continue to be a bedrock of SIUC's foundation, even as the number of program offerings diminish.

Faculty come to Carbondale specifically because it is a research university, Colwell said. "That trickles down not just to grad students but to undergrads that come here because they want to do research."

Dunn said SIU needs to bolster its efforts to attract students: "We have to do a better job of telling students in central and southern Illinois, 'This is your state university and we want you here.'"

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