Construction, enrollment, state's woes top SIUE chancellor's report for 2013

News-DemocratSeptember 18, 2013 

— A strong year of construction, growth and expansion is shadowed by high dropout rates and the state's fiscal crisis at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

Chancellor Julie Furst-Bowe gave her annual state of the university address Wednesday, outlining the successes and challenges facing SIUE this year.

Chief among the successes were the continued renovations and expansion of the science, engineering and art and design buildings, as well as new buildings for the SIUE dental lab and other programs.

SIUE also recently gained more accolades, with its 10th year among the top 10 of public universities in the Midwest in the U.S. News & World Report listing and its fourth year among the top 60 of 684 universities in Washington Monthly.

"We fulfill our mission based on our shared values of citizenship, excellence, inclusion, integrity and wisdom," Furst-Bowe said.

But the state's budget woes have affected SIUE. In 2002, the state provided 71.6 percent of SIUE's revenue; it now provides 39.7 percent, with increasing reliance on tuition to fund the university.

The pension situation remains unresolved, and SIU President Glenn Poshard said that no one really knows how it will be resolved. He predicted that there would be a proposed solution by the legislature's veto session, but whatever solutions are proposed will involve a reduction in benefits for retirees.

That means a constitutional challenge, Poshard said, and no one knows how the state Supreme Court will rule on that issue. Whether it is a reduction in health coverage or switching the cost-of-living adjustment to tie to inflation, it's a reduced benefit, which is being challenged as unconstitutional as the employees have already paid in to their pensions.

"Unless you solve that, nothing else gets the job done," Poshard said. "It's not popular, and that's why it's going to the courts."

No one knows how much the universities will have to pick up to cover for the state, either, he said.

While SIUE has had steady enrollment growth most years, overall enrollment has started to decline from a high of 14,235 in 2011 to 13,850 this year. While there are more professional, transfer and international students now, there has been a decrease in undecided students, arts and sciences majors and graduate students.

In part, that is because teachers often are not reimbursed for graduate studies anymore, Furst-Bowe said. But it is also about focus: students who enter college with a specific career in mind and a set goal tend to stay in school and finish more than students who go to college to explore a variety of interests, especially considering the rising costs of college tuition.

And the dropout rate is of concern as well. The first-to-second-year retention rate at SIUE is 70.7 percent, with a six-year graduation rate of 51.8 percent.

"These rates are not atypical, but we are letting far too many students leave our campus with a high level of debt and no degree in hand," Furst-Bowe said.

SIUE has begun a program of personally contacting each freshman who does not enroll the following semester, to find out if there is a way to help keep the student in school. Furst-Bowe said about 10 percent of dropout students leave for academic reasons, and another 20 percent for financial reasons. The remainder cite a variety of personal reasons, she said.

Among the ideas floated so far: expanded freshman orientation and advising, an academic early warning program, expanding honors programs and recruitment, tutoring and supplemental instruction and more personal follow-ups for students who drop out after the freshman year.

SIUE has launched several task forces, known as the REALITY teams: Reimagining Excellence in Academics and Learning through Innovation, Technology and You.

Those teams will focus on enrollment, retention and graduation rates, learning assessments, experience-based learning, international studies, online learning and more.

Online courses are now taken by one-third of higher-education students nationally, and Furst-Bowe said online programs are "critical to our long-term strategy." In the last year, SIUE has had a 41 percent increase in online course offerings and a 54.5 percent increase in registration for online courses.

Other items noted in the speech included:

* The first year of "The Lincoln Program," a new general-education program with expanded freshman seminar, foundation courses and a focus on interdisciplinary studies and global cultures;

* The first students graduating with doctorates in nursing and educational leadership;

* Improvement at East St. Louis Charter High School, with 100 percent of the class of 2014 achieving higher ACT scores than the previous class;

* SIUE faculty published 15 books and 341 peer-reviewed journal articles, gaining 189 external awards totaling $42.2 million and 89 research awards totaling $8.4 million;

* Students of color now comprise 23.4 percent of the student body, and SIUE has a four-star rating as a campus friendly to gay and lesbian students;

* 135 students traveled to 20 countries on faculty-led trips;

* Student athletes have a cumulative GPA higher than 3.0 for 14 consecutive semesters and a graduation rate 20 percent higher than the rest of the university;

* New programs coming in the next year include a bachelor's degree in mechatronics, master's degree in student personnel, doctorates of pharmacy in pediatrics and global health and minors in sustainability and forensic science.

Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at edonald@bnd.com or 239-2507.

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