CARBONDALE — Between 2013 and 2018, undergraduate enrollment at Eastern Illinois University, in Charleston, Illinois, dropped 2,779 students, a loss of more than 33 percent.
But 2018-19 is looking up.
The numbers are in, and Eastern’s enrollment is up 7.1 percent compared to last fall. Freshman enrollment improved even more dramatically: up 24.5 percent.
“We had this gut feeling of just, ‘wow,’” EIU Admissions Director Kelly Miller said. “You could feel the excitement at our open houses, among students and parents.”
Meanwhile, Southern Illinois University Carbondale suffered its biggest enrollment dip in at least 15 years, reporting an 11.9 percent drop to 12,817 students, with incoming students down almost 20 percent over 2017.
There’s no easy solution to admissions woes, Miller said, but Eastern attacked its long-term problem from multiple angles.
EIU introduced seven new majors this year, and hired a marketing firm, The Thornburn Group, to completely rebrand its website, images and promotional materials, Miller said.
The company also helped the university improve the positioning of its radio and TV ads, its billboards and social media publicity, to better reach the university’s target students.
EIU advertises as far away as Chicago, Miller said, but got a significant enrollment bump from local students this year, thanks to improved marketing and community support.
“We had a group of local business people that started a scholarship for students within a 60-mile radius,” Miller said, to encourage them to consider Eastern. “It was heartwarming to see how much money those businesses raised.”
Eighty-one percent of students who were offered scholarships through the program enrolled at EIU, Miller said.
Elsewhere, last year’s numbers show EIU had already begun to stem the wounds incurred in the state budget crisis, before this year’s big payoff.
Last year, the school achieved its smallest decline in fall enrollment in the last six years, and managed to actually increase graduate admissions, according to EIU President David Glassman’s State of the University address.
Now, undergrad enrollment is up and graduate enrollment is at “its highest point in eight years," Josh Norman, EIU associate vice president of enrollment management, said in a news release.
Meanwhile, SIUC Chancellor Carlo Montemagno has predicted that next year’s new student enrollment would equal or beat this year’s, although 2018 brought one of the biggest enrollment dips on record, with new enrollment down 20 percent over 2017.
Long term, Montemagno’s goal is to increase enrollment some 5,500 students, to 18,300, by 2025.
Statistically, that’s a big goal. But the promising indicators that the SIUC chancellor has cited to support his turnaround pitch — like increased attendance at recent open houses, and more applications filed this year to date — are worth taking seriously, Miller said.
“Applications, campus visits, students’ performance on SATs and ACT scores, we saw a trend across all of those indicators,” that led to this year’s improvement, Miller said. “At our prospective student tailgate we tripled our numbers over last year.”
The town of Charleston was also rated the second most affordable college town in America by The Business Insider, and the second safest college town in America by Safewise, a home security and safety company, according to EIU President Glassman.
While some voices at SIUC have called for lowering tuition to bring students back, Miller reported EIU actually increased tuition slightly over last year and has not lowered its academic requirements.
Tuition and fees for an Illinois resident at EIU will be $11,510.98 this year, while an SIUC student can expect to pay $14,599, or $12,671 if they receive the legacy rate (for children of an SIU graduate).
The universities have different functions, as SIUC, unlike EIU, is classified as a doctoral university with high research activity, meaning it awards significantly more Ph.D.s, and oversees more doctorate-level research.
Still, SIUC is “always looking at what other institutions are doing and how they are positioning themselves,” said Rae Goldsmith, SIUC chief communications officer. “This especially includes other institutions within Illinois, whether or not we are directly competing with them for students.”
Like EIU, SIU Carbondale has enlisted a marketing firm, called Greatest Creative Factor, to bolster next fall’s class. The group analyzed market research, conducted focus groups and helped improve messaging for prospective students, Goldsmith said, including materials and advertising newly in use.