Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville has morphed over the last decade from a commuter college into a regional university that attracts out-of-state students.
The secret to growing while other public universities and colleges across the state shrink: broadening recruitment efforts and constructing more dorms.
Seventy new students attended the last of 10 freshman orientations last week. Half of them were from beyond the Metro East area, including Jacob Robinson, an 18-year-old from Madison, Wisconsin. He’s a big Cardinals fan and wanted to attend a college close to the team’s home base and was drawn to SIUE after a visit.
“It just spoke to me more than any other campus I toured,” said Robinson, who will live in the dorms this year, a growing trend for SIUE students.
The campus is a half-hour drive from downtown St. Louis, and was designed for commuter students when it opened in 1957. Just a few hundred students lived on campus in the 1970s. But a shift in strategy during the 2000s saw the school reaching beyond the usual recruiting areas, and with that came a need to house the students.
“Students coming from Chicago, coming from Tennessee and Kentucky, coming from further parts of Missouri, need to live on campus. They can’t commute as much as they might have been able to when we just had regional students coming here,” said Ryan Downey, SIUE’s assistant director of admissions.
A fifth of SIUE’s roughly 14,000 students now live in one of five dormitories, and Downey said campus culture has “changed considerably.” There are more than 300 student organizations, 48 club sports and 21 fraternities and sororities.
“We’ve become not just a Monday through Thursday campus, we’re now a Monday through Sunday campus. So, we’re pretty busy here,” Jeffrey Waple, the vice chancellor for student affairs, said.
With fewer students heading home after classes end for the day, the college has expanded dining options and its recreation center has undergone three expansions. Construction crews are expanding the science building this summer, and the student center and athletic fields are slated to be renovated.
“We’ve rode the coattails of” of the residential growth, according to Keith Becherer, director of campus recreation. “Our growth has trailed a year or two behind a new dorm opening up.”
The growth isn’t without challenges. A two-year state budget impasse that ended July 6 deprived public colleges of millions in aid, forcing some to lay off faculty and staff. SIUE’s sister campus in Carbondale borrowed $15.7 million from Edwardsville in May, and is considering cutting seven degree programs.
Downey is less bullish about keeping up the pace of enrollment, citing long-term population trends at colleges in Illinois and across the Midwest.
Infinity Abdullah was at Friday’s last-chance orientation because she recently decided to attend SIUE due to in-state tuition and proximity to her suburban Chicago home.
Leaving the on-campus housing session, the 19-year-old said she’s nervous about sharing living quarters with strangers but, “I’m ready to go and explore and meet new people.”
William Thomas, 18, took in campus for the first time Friday. He and his best friend drove down from Chicago Heights, and Thomas had already purchased two school shirts from the bookstore. He said it didn’t feel like it was a sleepy commuter school.
“Campus is just amazing. People are really friendly and there are a lot of things to do and places to go to,” the theater major said. “It’s pretty cool.”
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