Tough times for my hometown university
I have three degrees from WIU, and I started my career in higher education there. I started teaching English and moved into continuing education administration. As I think about it, it was 40 years ago that I earned by B.A. Sigh. From The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Where Does the Regional State University Go From Here?
At Western Illinois, nearly 150 employees, including nontenured faculty members, have been laid off. As enrollment drops, the university is taking a closer look at its academic programs, reviewing those with low enrollment. To save money, some may be closed, merged with others, or reduced to a handful of courses offered in other departments.
The fates of a relatively small cluster of majors and faculty jobs in this rural corner of Illinois hang in the balance, and so does the role of a regional public university in the 21st century.
Without the athletics or research activities that draw public and legislative attention to flagships, regional publics have often been left to flourish, or falter, on their own. Unlike flagships, regionals can’t count on significant research funding, large endowments, or abundant out-of-state tuition to insulate them from the kind of budget cuts most states have handed down since the recession hit, in 2008.
The neglect is no longer benign. The inattention to public regionals, and the limited spending on them, disproportionately hurts low-income and first-generation students, who make up a large portion of those colleges’ enrollment. And it threatens state and national goals for higher education, both those of broadening access and getting more Americans to a college degree.
Illinois’s budget feud has grabbed headlines for the past year, but the deeper challenges that beset Western Illinois have been looming on the horizon.
Like many other Midwestern states, Illinois is losing population. The total number of state residents shrank by 0.2 percent (about 22,000 in net population) in 2015, the second-biggest percentage drop, after West Virginia, last year. The number of high-school graduates in Illinois also is projected to decline over the next decade. Population losses have been especially steep in the rural counties of the state, including the sparsely populated farming region that encircles Macomb, where Western Illinois is located.
The university has been successful in recruiting students from outside its immediate region — nearly half of its students come from the Chicago area — but its enrollment over the past decade has echoed recent state population trends. Fall enrollment for undergraduates has fallen steadily, from 11,284 in 2005 to 9,141 in 2015.
It probably doesn’t help that tiny Macomb could be a tough sell for students interested in a more urban setting. The town boasts old-fashioned courthouse-square charm, but it’s sleepy and remote. The nearest Starbucks is nearly an hour’s drive on two-lane roads.
At the same time, state appropriations, which up until this past year provided about 40 percent of Western Illinois’s instructional budget, have been effectively flat against inflation for most of the past five years. Tight budgets and enrollment declines have led to tuition increases, which in turn hurts the university’s competitive position in the market. Total tuition, fees, and room and board for in-state students rose from $14,977 in the 2008 fiscal year to $22,469 in the 2016 fiscal year, an increase of 40 percent. (Western Illinois offers incoming students a cost guarantee that freezes the amount they pay for four years.)
Alphonso Simpson Jr. teaches "Introduction to African-American Studies" at Western Illinois, the most popular course in a department that could be downsized or even eliminated. Last year’s graduating class had just three students who majored in African-American studies.
When the university began the 2015-16 academic year with no state funds, administrators began laying the groundwork for furloughs and staff layoffs in case the budget impasse dragged on. In response to the enrollment losses and the accompanying revenue drops, administrators also began considering faculty layoffs and pondering what to do about academic programs with the lowest enrollments. The largest program on campus, law enforcement and justice administration, had 24 full-time faculty members and graduated 386 majors last year. Among those with low enrollments were African-American studies, which had five full-time faculty members and graduated three majors, and philosophy, which had five full-time professors and graduated two majors.