By Richard Vedder
I am currently in Illinois and read in the local paper that Southern Illinois University (SIU) wants to admit out-of-state students from neighboring states and charge them in-state tuition rates, in order to battle falling enrollment. This story is rich in irony and lessons for ambitious universities below the top tier.
For decades, SIU has had an inferiority complex that it has tried to overcome by aggressive expansion. A former president (Morris) tried to follow the Michigan State model of John Hannah from the 1950s and 1960s, by attempting to turn a sleepy secondary college into a major university. Illinois already has two schools in the top 10 of the forbes.com (and CCAP) rankings of national universities, Northwestern and Chicago, and one of the great state universities in the top 25 in the US NEWS public university rankings, the University of Illinois.
In recent years, SIU has jacked its tuition up enormously under ambitious presidents trying to take the school to "the next highest level." A reporter for the student paper called me a couple of years ago and related how the school had an ambitious plan to ascend to the ranks of the great research universities, and high tuition fees were needed to help fund the effort.
A funny thing happened along the way (aside from some top administrators of the university leaving, apparently under some duress): enrollments started falling. SIU has fewer students than it did in 1990. Demand for tier three (US News rankings) schools is somewhat price-elastic --if SIU gets too costly, kids will go to Eastern Illinois, Western Illinois, Illinois State University or a variety of other schools, both private and public. Meanwhile, SIU has not ascended to the top ranks, as the number of top-notch scholars wanting to move to Carbondale, Illinois is, shall we say, highly finite.
Now with the pool of 18 to 22 year olds starting to fall, SIU is facing a big problem --not enough students. Located in a low income area with relatively high tuition fees, the school has gone from seeking to rival the U. of Illinois in the national rankings, to trying to maintain an adequate enrollment base so that it can maintain the pretense that it is a serious comprehensive university.
The SIU experience, with variations, is being repeated all over the country. Everyone wants to reach the next highest level --by spending more money. There can only be 50 schools in the top 50. SIU will never, at least not before 2040, catch up with Chicago, Northwestern, or Illinois. My university, Ohio University, will not catch Ohio State. North Texas State will not catch the University of Texas or Texas A&M. And so it goes. Nor will football success achieve what cannot be reached academically.
To be sure, I wish there was MORE movement up and down in university rankings and the success and failure of schools. But until we measure outcomes better, that will not happen. Meanwhile, the SIU tale of how institutional hubris can have unintended consequences is one that many university presidents should heed.