It’s no secret to the Southern Illinois community that Southern Illinois University has experienced declining enrollment for several years.
Terri Harfst, director of the SIU Financial Aid office and director of undergraduate admissions, said the university has taken steps to change that trend.
She said in the past the university had been purchasing fewer names from various sources for students who take the ACT or SAT tests. She said the university had only been purchasing the names of students who were seniors in high school to recruit them to SIU.
“When you start thinking about college selection, you know that when you are thinking about college, you didn’t start making decisions your senior year in high school,” Harfst said. “That is a process that requires us to be out in front of students and parents early on.
“So, when they start making those decisions as juniors and seniors, there’s that brand recognition about SIU Carbondale.”
Harfst said the fewer name buys didn’t impact the fall of 2016, but that decision is affecting the university now and beyond. She said the university has changed that policy and are now purchasing names at an increased rate.
The day before this past Thursday’s Board of Trustees meeting, Harfst presented to the board information about students who applied to SIU and didn’t enroll at the university.
She said about 60 percent of the students who didn’t come to Carbondale went to another four-year university. About 20 percent went to a two-year college or community college and the remaining student either didn’t go to college or went to a school that didn’t turn in data to be reflected in the report used.
Of those students who went to an in-state, four-year university that applied to Carbondale, but didn’t enroll — 23 percent went to Illinois State, 18 percent went to University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, 14 percent went to Western Illinois and 13 percent went to University of Illinois Chicago and Northern Illinois, respectively.
For those students who decided to enroll at a private university in Illinois — 13 percent went to Loyola, 12 percent to DePaul, 11 percent to Bradley, 11 percent to St. Xavier University and 11 percent to Lewis University.
Not all students who applied to SIU went to in-state schools, either. The data presented by Harfst said 11 percent of applicants went to Southeast Missouri State, 9 percent went to University of Missouri-Columbia, 8 percent to Ball State and 7 percent to Iowa State, to name a few public universities.
She said about 25 percent of the students in the area are going to regional community colleges in the Southern Illinois area.
“We know that they are out there, and we need to start recruiting them to get to in SIU Carbondale,” Harfst said.
She reported the applications and admissions for the fall of 2017 are down from the previous year. She said if the university can yield about 25 to 27 percent of the students it is recruiting, the incoming class will be about what it was the previous year.
“But with the financial situation in the state, I don’t know how it is going to turn out,” she said. “We won’t see those numbers until the second week of classes in fall 2017.”
Harfst addressed perceptions about SIU the admission department struggles with when talking with prospective students and their parents. She said the staff hears SIU is unsafe, its academic reputation is less than other schools and the geographic location is undesirable to some.
“Those campuses who are getting out in front of the state funding issue and saying ‘we are here, we aren’t going anywhere, we have money and we are spending money,’ are getting those students,” she said.
SIU President Randy Dunn said there are a lot of students in the Southern Illinois area that could come to SIU that aren’t.
“We have too many students who can — particularly from central and Southern Illinois — who can come to SIU Carbondale, have huge success, (and) a great university experience who are suddenly getting advised away from that,” he said. “We have to push out that message of what we have to offer — the great experience, the opportunity, the institution and all these things we are trying to talk about. Don’t short-sell the importance of that. It’s huge.”
SIU Trustee Joel Sambursky asked how a university can curb the safety perception.
“Safety is the toughest issue from a marketing standpoint. The more you brag about it, it takes one incident to make it come back and then it backfires,” said Rae Goldsmith, chief marketing and communications officer at SIU. “We have to build it into the conversation with our current students and alumni now. We are in a small media market. So, things that happen on other campuses every day get more attention here.”
Goldsmith said a lot of the university’s safety and perception issues aren’t just associated with the campus, but also the city of Carbondale.
“We have this small-town college community feel issue that adds to that. It is an issue we are really well aware of,” she said.