November 17, 2009
By Benjamin Voloshin
In 2001 UIS admitted its first group of freshman, the predecessors to our present-day Capital Scholars.
The assortment consisted of one hundred students each armed with a formidable academic profile.
To achieve this qualified group of students, UIS introduced an unprecedented selectivity process endorsed by university and state funding. The program was also backed by a supportive faculty eager to see an expansion to the institution. The result of this effort was a 92 percent retention rate among the new Capital Scholars.
Over years this figure has endured some fluctuation, culminating in its recent trough of 80 percent.
However UIS had hoped to expand on the number of incoming freshmen prior to developing its Capital Scholars Honors Program. In order to achieve this goal, the school drastically raised its numbers between the Spring of 2005 to the Fall of 2006.
The rise in enrollment gave way to a holistic selection policy aimed at observing prospective students through a lens focused on potential for scholarly growth. Moreover, average class rank among first-year freshmen rose. Contradictory to this gain, however, average ACT scores among this demographic dropped by about 2 points. Since 2005, before this influx, this figure hasn’t risen above 22.
What could this mean?
Associate Vice Chancellor for Undergraduate Education Karen Moranski explains that the school had plans to admit a much larger population because they wanted a broad-ranging student body.
To elaborate, she continued to explain: "Broadening the undergraduate student body means that we must provide a wider array of services than ever before in the history of UIS. Students are diverse in many ways and come to UIS with many needs, both academic and personal. We need to provide services that will help us maintain diversity and retain students."
The school now provides safety nets in case some of these students may be struggling.
In the same year freshman population raised and the administration integrated the Early Warning System.
Last year, the school opened the Center for First Year Students (CFYS) and an Academic Success course designated for probationary students.
Undergraduate administrators say the school is shifting its primary concern to the undergraduates since the school has spent years establishing itself as a predominately graduate-oriented institution.
As an off-shoot, Moranski commented on how this campus has recently excelled in advocating for growing number of first generation students. The rise in this population correlates to the rise in the number of eighteen year-olds on campus and diversifies the make-up of the student body.
As for current retention rates, UIS isn’t living up to its own goals; it is currently behind other University of Illinois campuses. But that doesn’t mean the school isn’t doing well. In fact, retention rates have actually gone up in the past few years.
The year before last, retention rates were at 65 percent and last year they were at 71 percent. This academic year is projected to be 75 percent, according to US World & News Report, overtaking Western Illinois, both Southern Illinois campuses, and Illinois College.
UIS still has work to do, though. The retention rates at Illinois State in Bloomington or Bradley University in Peoria are well above 80 percent and several other Illinois institutions remain high as well.
These numbers may reflect poorly on this school for now, but it does not rule out a chance for UIS to give these universities some competition in coming years. The resources and opportunities at the school grow ever year and have already displayed their benefits.
The recent addition of remedial math courses, for example, has led to high math pass rates among students.
The school has gone to establish living-learning communities in Lincoln Hall like those found at the UIC and UIUC to foster integration between the town of Springfield and the UIS campus through community service. The hall located in LRH is called the “Leadership for Life” Service Wing.
Kelly Thompson, director of UIS’ Center for Volunteer and Civic Engagement, states that in 2008, those students who live in a living-learning community wing served our local community through about 950 hours of service. These are ventures organized to bolster retention efforts already underway.
According to administrator Jack Hester at the CFYS, many students who transfer or drop out typically dislike the environment on campus or even Springfield as a whole. Some students find the transition from life in the greater Chicagoland area or the St. Louis metro area to a medium-sized city like Springfield difficult and refuse to acclimate.
“We here at the CTL and CFYS do as much as we can. I think we’re making a big difference,” says Hester.
The alternative route some of these students take is often to relocate to a college more befitting to their preferences.
UIS has also taken on new majors to help raise retention. Global studies and management information systems have been included into the growing list of majors in recent years, and there have been recent pushes for majors such as journalism, music, and theater to diversify and broaden the school’s academic spectrum.
The athletic program at UIS is growing, too, with plans for a varsity baseball team to play off-campus next year. UIS has come to understand the value sports play in retaining students.
Graduation rates still lag behind other colleges. Eastern Illinois, Western Illinois and Illinois State all have substantially better graduation numbers.
Retention rates reflect UIS’ goal to build a reputation tangent to the Sangamon State University identity ingrained in its history. These minor flaws may be interpreted as “growing pains”, but the school is gradually learning how to distinguish itself from its past.
According to one history professor who remembers what it was like as the old institution, “it was considered weird for a professor back then to have written a book, to have been published at all.” The new millennium has flipped that statement upside down, and now it is commonplace for professors to share their published intellect with their various pupils.
But in order to flourish UIS must endure heavy monetary restraints. This year UIS will undergo a 6 percent budget cut, one of many in the college’s young history.
This means there will be fewer staff at UIS working harder to compensate for the shrunken faculty. In the meanwhile there are talks of a Wal-Mart Grant and a few other opportunities to be set in place to aid students financially.
UIS may still retain some of the experimental methods of its SSU history, but this school is still figuring out what it needs. Given time, proper funds, and a dedicated student body, this school may fulfill its unbridled potential.