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The "Crisis of Confidence" series is a multi-year effort by the Tri States Public Radio to document the impact the two-year state budget impasse had on Western Illinois University and the ongoing recovery efforts at WIU. State support for public higher education institutions has been steadily declining in Illinois for more than a decade. But the issue was compounded, during the state's historic two-year budget impasse during Fiscal Years '16 and '17 which left public colleges and universities with little state financial support. At Western Illinois University, that drastic cut in state appropriations resulted in significant budget cuts, employee furloughs, and layoffs.

WIU Student Enrollment Dips Below 10K

Rich Egger

There are 9,469 students enrolled at Western Illinois University this spring semester. It's the first time this century Western's student body has dropped below 10,000.

Dr. Ron Williams, Western’s Interim Vice President of Student Services and the Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs, said spring 2017 enrollment is down about 6.5% compared to last spring. He said that is less than the 10% drop the university projected.

"We are down. We are continuing to see a decline but the good thing is we have not seen as much of a decline as we had expected given the crisis of confidence with our budget situation and the demographics of the state with a lot of students leaving the state of Illinois," Williams said.

Credit TSPR
This graph reflects the total number of students taking college courses at both of Western's campuses in Macomb and the Quad Cities.

Despite the overall decline, Williams said international student enrollment is up this spring. International students are especially beneficial to the university financially because they pay 1.5 times the tuition rate that in-state students pay.

There were also 55 more students enrolled at the graduate level this spring compared to spring 2016. Graduate students make up about 11% of the total student body. Williams said those students are primarily recruited by the individual academic programs in which they enroll.

As Illinois nears completion of its 20th month without a state budget, universities are more reliant on student tuition, room and board, and fees to cover daily operating expenses.

“At beginning of semesters when tuition dollars flow into the university that helps the university to sustain itself,” Williams said. “But then we also depend on state appropriated dollars. The stop gaps have been monumental for us. While they are not ideal, we are still very grateful for those stop gap initiates to help the university to get through to the next year so we can continue to provide educational services to our students.”

Western estimates the decline in enrollment this semester is equal to a loss of about $2 million in tuition. During the budget impasse, there have been stop gap spending plans that have sent money to higher education institutions. But Western has received only a portion of its regular state appropriations during that time. And this spring, Western is again covering the cost of MAP grants for low-income students with hopes the state will reimburse the university.

Looking Ahead to Fall 2017

Williams said Western will continue to advocate for state funding for higher education. He said the university is also expanding student recruitment efforts throughout the region and especially in Missouri.   

“We are strategizing, and we are leveraging scholarship programs. We are doing all that we know to do in order to recruit more students for the fall,” Williams said.

He said the university is working to get more prospective students to visit campus. But he said many of the first-generation, low-income college students considering attending Western don’t have the money to come and visit the Macomb campus. He said the WIU Foundation is stepping in to help finance campus visits for those students facing a financial barrier.

"If a student actually visits campus or comes to a Discover Western (program) or comes to an Experience Western or makes it to our campus and engages with faculty and staff, they will enroll at Western Illinois University,” Williams said. “They are 80% more likely to enroll if they come on campus than just being recruited through the internet and mail. "

He said the university is also trying to increase corporate partnerships in an effort to increase revenues coming into the university. He said that includes soliciting general donations and donations for scholarships or specific academic programs.

“If a company tells us they need a certain type of accountant or if they need a certain type of construction management person or if they need teachers or whatever the case may be, then we can try to provide that type of education so that we can partner with them and they can help us financially,” Williams said. “If they are providing students for us or even some type of tuition remission for those students it helps everyone do well."

Emily Boyer is a former reporter at Tri States Public Radio.