Enrollment Exodus: Public Universities Do More Than Educate Students
Tammy Yates was excited to come to Macomb seven years ago. Yates and her partner Chad Hunziker opened Chubby's, a restaurant on West Adams Street, just a few blocks from the Western Illinois University campus.
"Just the vibe of the whole campus in 2012 was happy. It was positive and people were having fun," said Yates.
"It’s a little different now."
It's different because WIU's student enrollment continues a downward trend that started several years before the restaurant opened and was exacerbated by the two-year state budget impasse that began in July 2015. A couple years ago Chubby's moved to a location on Macomb's courthouse square because Yates and Hunziker found they were serving more townies than students. But business still has not fully rebounded.
"We're nervous. We're scared. We don't pay ourselves just to get through and it's frightening," said Yates.
DECLINING ENROLLMENT, REVENUES
Data from the university shows the enrollment dropped throughout this decade, confirming why Macomb business owners are nervous and scared:
The decline is a double whammy for Hunziker. He has spent two decades in the rental business and said he has more empty homes than ever before.
"You go from extending your loan payments to interest-only loans," he said.
The community's businesses depend on WIU students and employees – and so does city government.
The city has a one-cent sales tax to pay for road repairs and other infrastructure projects. Macomb started collecting the tax seven years ago, about the same time Chubby's opened.
Data from the city shows that as enrollment fell, so did the amount of revenue generated by the tax:
"So yeah, I think you can pretty easily draw a parallel between those two things occurring," said Mayor Mike Inman about the decline in enrollment and the mirroring decline in revenues from the special tax.
PUBLIC UNIVERSITIES AS ECONOMIC POWERHOUSE
Mayor Inman added, "(Western) is the largest employer in the region. And when you're talking about generating economic activity, it's a powerhouse. So we feel the plus when things are good and we feel the down when things are not so good."
His comment underscores the idea that the state created the university system not just to educate students, but also to provide economic and cultural opportunities throughout Illinois.
Chris Merrett said people understood this even in the late 1800s when various communities fought to get the university as state leaders mulled the options.
"Even over 100 years ago people understood that state investment in higher education was going to be a plus for their local economy and their local workforce," said Merrett, who is director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs, which is headquartered on WIU's Macomb campus.
Merrett said three broad socioeconomic trends have had an important impact on Western's student enrollment and the region's economy:
Merrett suggested the state should put the same care into higher education that it puts into economic development.
"If we were really interested in future economic development in downstate Illinois, we would be investing in the future workers and business owners, which happen to be today's students," he said.
BRINGING CULTURAL OPPORTUNITIES TO ENTIRE STATE
Western also provides opportunities for people to engage in cultural activities.
Billy Clow is the dean of WIU's College of Fine Arts and Communication, though he is currently serving as the university's interim provost.
Clow said there is no doubt public universities bring cultural opportunities that otherwise might not exist in small towns in western, eastern, and southern Illinois.
"(For) an institution to survive, public institutions have to give back. That's the reason they were created. That's the reason that we are here," Clow said.
The university has a Performing Arts Society that raises money to support arts programming, and WIU remains engaged with the arts throughout the year. Clow pointed to this year's SummerStage production of the play Oliver!
"We use students and adults from all over, the age range is as broad as we can get. We want all the talent we can get in the community and the surrounding areas to come and audition for these summer productions and be a part of what we do," said Clow.
"SummerStage is meant to be a community-based, university-based partnership where we all come together and work to create beautiful art."
OPTIMISM ABOUT WIU'S FUTURE
Chad Hunziker of Chubby's said he believes the university can turn things around and eventually attract more students.
"But it takes years to get that turnaround to really be significant for us. But yes, I do think we're heading in the right direction," he said.
Hunziker and partner Tammy Yates point out WIU has new leadership; Acting President Dr. Martin Abraham runs the day-to-day operations and there is a new Board of Trustees.
Yates said, "I'm super hopeful. I am just hopeful that this acting president continues to do the things he's doing. He is doing amazing things."
She said Abraham is reaching out to the community and its businesses much more than what she saw from Western's previous administration.
Yates and Hunziker said they just hope their businesses can hang in there long enough to profit from Western's potential turnaround.
This story is part of the weeklong Enrollment Exodus series, produced by public radio stations across the state, about challenges facing higher education in Illinois.
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