Enrollment Exodus: When Western Illinois University Struggles, So Does The Whole Region

Sep 27, 2019

As part of our statewide “Enrollment Exodus” collaboration, WNIJ’s Peter Medlin spoke with Tri States Public Radio News Director Rich Egger. They talked about Egger’s reporting on Western Illinois University and how enrollment decline affects every part of their community.

Even if the main job of public universities is to provide an education to students, that’s far from where the schools’ impact stops. The health of a large university is directly tied to the health of its community. That’s especially true in rural areas like Macomb that don’t have many other major sources of economic investment.

“Macomb Mayor Mike Inman referred to Western as being the largest employer in the region. So when you talk about generating economic activity, it’s a powerhouse,” said Egger.

But it doesn’t end at economics either. Egger’s recent reporting also talks about the cultural opportunities that a university like WIU can bring to places that might not otherwise have them.

In the report, Egger interviewed the owners of a Macomb restaurant called Chubby’s who came to Macomb in 2012, as the enrollment downturn was just beginning. They said they could feel the mood shifting in the community as the number of students plummeted. Egger said he felt the same thing.

“I think a lot of it has to do with that two-year state budget impasse that really hurt the public university system in the state,” said Egger. “And so while some of the problems might have to do with how the local leaders responded to it at the university, a lot of the blame goes on the state, too.”

Egger also spoke to the director of rural affairs at Western Illinois University, Chris Merrett. He went over three socioeconomic trends that affect Macomb and the whole west-central Illinois region.

The trends are separated into short, medium and long-term issues.

  • Long-term: decades-long decline of rural populations
  • Medium-term: state disinvestment in public higher education
  • Short-term: the two-year state budget impasse

“(State funding) peaked in 2002, and enrollment declines mirror state funding support declines,” said Egger.

But despite the enrollment decline that continue to plague the university, Egger says there is reason for optimism.

“It certainly feels different on campus,” he said. In June, WIU’s then-president resigned with Dr. Martin Abraham taking over as acting president of the university.

“Just what you hear from people in the community is that this acting or interim administration is reaching out and trying to be part of the community and trying to bring the community into Western a little bit more, too,” said Egger.

Western Illinois University’s fall enrollment dipped to around 7,600 students. Although that’s a nearly 10% decrease from last year -- it’s also the lowest year-to-year decline since the budget impasse.

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.