The head of Western Illinois University said plans are already in the works to attract more students, though it might take a couple years to turn around enrollment numbers that have declined for more than a decade.
Acting President Martin Abraham said he has formed four teams comprised of faculty and staff to look at issues such as enrollment, retention, and distance learning.
“I think we’re doing a lot of things at this point, not only to get the students here but to keep them here and get them graduated in a timely manner,” Dr. Abraham said during an interview with Tri States Public Radio.
This fall’s total WIU enrollment of 7,624 is a decrease of around 10% compared to last fall, when it was 8,502.
- Macomb campus - 6,432
- Quad Cities campus – 1,192
- Undergraduate – 5,958
- Graduate – 1,666
“The numbers are not where we want them to be. I’m a little bit disappointed that they weren’t better,” said Abraham.
“But there is good news embedded within those numbers in a number of places where we’ve done better than we have in the past or better than we expected.”
He pointed to the 2,071 new students (freshman, transfer, and graduate students). “That’s down less this year than it has been in prior years. It’s our smallest decline in the last five years,” Abraham said.
Here are a few more excerpts from our conversation.
TSPR: Where do you think Western needs to be in terms of total enrollment numbers?
Abraham: I can tell you that we need to be bigger than we are today. The absolute size -- I don’t know that I can actually give you a specific number yet. I expect that we will be smaller again next year because there’s baked-in enrollment declines because of the multiple years of declining enrollment.
But I can also tell you that the objective is, starting in the fall of ‘21, these numbers are going to start to turn up. And as they start to turn up, as we look at the demand and look at the opportunities, we’ll start to set some projections for how large we can get.
TSPR: So what is the plan to turn things around?
Abraham: A lot more attention to details. A lot better communication. We are involving faculty in the work that we’re doing to help (with) recruiting and land the students. We have current students who will be involved. We have alumni who are going to be engaged.
And it’s not just new freshmen. It’s the same type of message with graduate students. It’s the same type of message with international students. It’s the same type of message with transfer students. Reaching out to all of those populations, getting the communications processes more firmly entrenched so that we can be responsive to the needs of our prospective students.
TSPR: How much of an emphasis do you place on recruiting from the immediate area, for example the 16 county area of western Illinois?
Abraham: Numbers from our 16 county area actually have gone up a little bit this year relative to last year. We’ve put a lot of emphasis into that. We will continue to put a lot of emphasis into that. It’s important for us and we’re going to continue to focus on bringing more students from our region.
TSPR: Given the decline in rural populations, is that really the way to go?
Abraham: Yes, because we need to be doing everything we can for all of the populations. So we need to be doing better in our own backyard as well as continuing to reach out to other areas, and we’re going to do that as well.
We’re all throughout Illinois. We’re recruiting north, south, east, west. We’re recruiting in Chicago. We’re recruiting in St. Louis. We know that there are students in both of those large cities where there are large populations that are looking for the types of experiences that we can offer them.
TSPR: When the administration released this fall’s enrollment numbers, it issued a news release. You’re quoted as saying, “Our goal is to graduate our students, preferably in four years, and without debt.” How do you help them graduate without debt?
Abraham: We’re revisiting our scholarship programs and putting new programs in place. We’re looking at costs of education and how much they pay even for things like books. We’re looking at our fee structure and are there fees that we’re charging to our students that we shouldn’t be charging to our students.
I’m interested in creating more work experiences for our students here on campus, giving them opportunities to work so they can earn some money while they’re here. The data shows that students that work on campus are going to be more successful. They’re going to graduate at a higher rate.
We need to make sure our programs are properly streamlined so students can graduate in four years.
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