Dan Corkery: A higher-education turnaround

Dan Corkery: A higher-education turnaround

At Eastern Illinois University, a small negative number is good news.

On Friday, the Charleston school released its 10-day fall enrollment: 7,030 students, a 5 percent decline from 7,415 in fall 2016.

"It's the lowest enrollment decline we've had in six years," said Josh Norman, EIU's associate vice president for enrollment management.

Having 385 fewer students on campus sounds like more bad news for a school that's experienced a 43 percent enrollment decline over the last 11 years. But minus 385 is better than minus 1,101, which was the difference from fall 2015 to fall '16.

That precipitous drop-off coincided with Gov. Bruce Rauner's election and the resulting two-year standoff with the Democratically controlled Legislature. During the fiscal deadlock, state universities received a pittance of state support, and the financial uncertainty hit Eastern, Western Illinois and Governor's State universities particularly hard.

"The budget impasse is over," Norman said, "and at this point, we'll take all the good news we can get."

After the Legislature overrode the governor's veto and approved higher income taxes and a spending plan, Illinois' public universities have enough confidence to plan for their futures.

And for EIU and others, that means rebuilding both finances and enrollment.

Yet those schools face headwinds trying to boost student headcounts.

The University of Illinois' three campuses continue to grow.

Two years ago, UI President Timothy Killeen talked about the three-campus system expanding to 100,000 students. Late last month, 93,000 was the target. Whatever growth the UI does achieve means more competition for a finite body of students.

And that body of Illinois high-schoolers is shrinking.

According to 2015-2016 numbers from the Illinois State Board of Education, public school classes from the eighth grade through kindergarten show progressively smaller sizes. Fewer middle school students today means fewer college-bound students in four years.

And it isn't just Illinois. Norman said it's an accepted fact among officials for Midwestern colleges that there are fewer and fewer high school seniors in the region.

Further draining that recruiting pool is the fact that an increasing number of in-state students are leaving Illinois.

According to figures compiled by the Illinois Board of Higher Education, Illinois exported 16,623 more college students to other states in 2014 than it was in attracting out-of-staters. Six years earlier, in 2008, net outmigration was only 3,045 students.

Uncertainty about state finances is a significant factor in making Illinois the second largest student exporter in the country. New Jersey, which also has dysfunctional state government, had 29,101 in 2014.

Where is Illinois leaking students? To border states Iowa, Indiana, Missouri and Wisconsin.

"It is just silly how many students are going out of state," Norman said. "So the questions I'm asking myself are, what are the new markets we can explore when it comes to traditional freshmen and transfers, but also non-traditional and graduate students."

Not surprising, EIU is looking at the same states that are attracting Illinois students, with the possibility of offering in-state tuition for out-of-state students — something Southern and Western Illinois universities are doing now.

EIU is also connecting its alumni with Illinois high schools, counselors and community colleges.

"We're bringing them along in the process," Norman said of EIU's alumni, "because we realize how important they are as influencers who are really focused on relationships."

Expect to see more advertising about EIU — whether it's billboards or audio ads on Pandora. SIU Edwardsville has aggressively promoted itself in the Metro East area, and its enrollment has been increasing.

"We all have to work at keeping our students here," Norman said. "I'm less worried about the in-state competitors than I am about out-of-state competitors because of what has happened with the budget impasse. It's made students question the long-term viability of Illinois public education in total.

"So we have to do everything we can to combat that perception. We're rebuilding as public institutions in the state of Illinois."

Dan Corkery is a member of The News-Gazette's editorial board. His email is dcorkery@news-gazette.com.

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