Illinois’s Regional Public Colleges Report Strained Conditions Amid Sliding Enrollment

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Both faculty members and administrators cite Illinois’s continuing budget standoff as the primary culprit for the drop in students at the state’s regional public colleges. At Southern Illinois U. at Carbondale (pictured), enrollment dipped 7.6 percent this fall compared with last, according to preliminary university data.

More than a year after Illinois’s public colleges and universities last received permanent funding from the state, the effects of political gridlock seem to be taking a toll on enrollment at regional public colleges.

For the fall semester, total enrollment dropped by about 13 percent compared with the fall of 2015 at Eastern Illinois University, according to preliminary university data. Similarly, enrollment at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale dipped 7.6 percent compared with last fall, according to preliminary data.

Faculty members and administrators have speculated for months about what this academic year would look like, if the budget impasse persisted, but now that enrollments have actually fallen, reality is setting in. Because state funding remains shaky — legislators approved about $600 million in emergency funds for public colleges in April — universities are coping with the possibility of less money both from the taxpayers and from declining enrollment. That means more strain on faculty members, among others.

Jemmie Robertson, an associate professor of trombone and euphonium and chair of the Eastern Illinois Faculty Senate, said faculty members had feared what the lack of permanent state funding would do to the university, but this year the effects are pretty obvious.

When his music colleagues departed and their spots weren’t filled, Mr. Robertson said he found himself back in a 150-student lecture hall teaching a core course in the department, "The Evolution of Jazz and Rock," that he hadn’t taught in years.

Given the drop in enrollment and the number of unfilled positions, the course has been reduced from three sections to one, he said. "This 13-percent drop in one academic year is pretty profound," Mr. Robertson said. "I’m back in the classroom teaching that because there’s no other faculty left in the department available."

It’s not just this course that worries him, Mr. Robertson said. Other music electives, like world-music courses, and introductory music classes aren’t being offered every semester anymore.

‘An Almost Eerie Silence’

Ryan Netzley, an English professor on the Carbondale campus, said he had seen a similar shrinkage in his "Western Literary Tradition" course. The course was once divided into three sections, two in the classroom and one online. This semester, he said, only one is being offered.

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Despite the drastic cuts in class sections, Mr. Netzley said he had not heard many student complaints, a concern in itself. "What’s odd about it is that I would expect more student chatter," Mr. Netzley said. "But inside the classroom there’s an almost eerie silence about the subject."

The issues at Eastern Illinois aren’t due only to a lack of permanent state funding, Mr. Robertson said. "Even when we did have more-predictable streams of revenue, we did have falling enrollment," he said. University data show, for instance, that enrollment slid roughly 9 percent from the fall of 2013 and to the fall of 2014.

An Eastern Illinois spokeswoman did not immediately return The Chronicle’s request for comment. According to a university news release, administrators are studying this semester’s enrollment numbers to develop plans to expand Eastern Illinois.

Mr. Netzley said Carbondale’s enrollment woes have lingered for a while, and the current budget crisis is prompting administrators to propose quick solutions.

“That’s the part that I worry most about — it’s that the short-termism of the crisis ends up producing long-term kinds of horrifying effects.”

The administration’s response to the enrollment and retention problem is to "make sure the classes are easy and make sure that we’re nice," he said. "That’s the part that I worry most about — it’s that the short-termism of the crisis ends up producing long-term kinds of horrifying effects."

Outside the classroom and in labs, faculty members are feeling a similar budget bite s, especially when they seek funding to work with undergraduates, said Jeffrey R. Stowell, a professor of physical science at Eastern Illinois.

"Some faculty who have relied on internal grant funding to help support research" with students, Mr. Stowell said, have gotten in the position where "they don’t have the funding to provide the ongoing research experiences that they would normally have for students."

‘Challenging to Say the Least’

At Carbondale, though enrollment numbers are lower than expected, Rae M. Goldsmith, a university spokeswoman, said the drop had administrators revisiting a retention plan.

She attributed the enrollment dip to prospective students’ fears about the state’s budget and institutional problems, like an understaffed admissions office that suffered heavy turnover.

She said she was confident enrollment would soon be on the upswing, but for the moment she’s concerned about how the budget standoff might affect specific parts of the campus, like graduate enrollment, where assistantships are now limited because of the lack of funding.

If faculty members have fewer students in the lab, it’s likely that they won’t receive grants as they did in years past, said Judy Davie, an associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and the Faculty Senate president. "I’m a School of Medicine faculty, and we’re working as hard as we can, but you know, fewer students, fewer grants," she said. "It’s challenging to say the least."

To retain students, Ms. Davie said, administrators are working with faculty members to figure out how to ensure students pass their core classes so the university doesn’t lose them; the plan is a work in progress.

Gray Whaley, an associate professor of history, said the university had prepared faculty members by telling them there would be lower enrollment in the fall, but that doesn’t mean the numbers are any less concerning.

"They are relying so much on student tuition dollars," he said, "that the small class is really wreaking havoc."

Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz is a web writer. Follow her on Twitter @FernandaZamudio, or email her at fzamudiosuarez@chronicle.com.

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September 18, 2016 at 08:55PM

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Illinois’s Regional Public Colleges Report Strained Conditions Amid Sliding Enrollment

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