Indiana State University's vitality has a proportional effect on the Terre Haute community.

When ISU thrives, the city's economy and activities surge. When the university struggles, Terre Haute takes a hit, too. The campus is the city's third largest employer, with more than 1,500 employees last year, according to the Terre Haute Economic Development Corp. A total of 13,045 students were enrolled at ISU in 2018. Profs, support staff and students not only spend money in local businesses, but also volunteer in high numbers. University events entertain and educate thousands of residents, too. Thousands of local residents and workers are alums.

As ISU goes, so goes Terre Haute, in many ways.

Thus, last week's revelation that the university's fall enrollment had dropped by nearly 7 percent, compared to last year, sounds jarring. Nearly 900 fewer students started classes last month than did in 2018. This year's official fall headcount stood at 12,146, down from 13,045 last year, and 13,771 in 2017.

ISU is not alone. Spring figures showed enrollments at public four-year colleges across the U.S. fell by 0.9% since 2018, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.

Fortunately, ISU officials anticipated its enrollment decrease and implemented changes in advance. Those steps could transform what appears to be bad news into a long-term benefit.

ISU essentially tightened its admission practices. Large freshmen classes fueled record enrollment increases through the previous decade as Indiana State laudably defined its niche among other Indiana public universities as a destination for first-generation, minority and low-income students. The school remains committed to that role, but is intensifying its focus on making sure its students graduate.

Of course, that degree matters. College graduates are 24 percent more likely to be employed than the rest of the population, and earn an average of $32,000 a year more, according to the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. A majority of ISU graduates remain in Indiana after college, so the Hoosier state benefits from their success. Salaries earned by Sycamore alums boost the tax base and overall economies of their towns.

So, helping more young people earn those incomes, while becoming their family's first college graduate, is a worthwhile mission for ISU.

Ramifications come with the overall drop in the university's enrollment, though. ISU is eliminating 26 vacant staff positions. Its board of trustees approved a general fund budget that is $6.4 million tighter than last year. Supplies, expenses and budgeted reserves are being cut.

Positive signs are emerging, even amid the enrollment shrinkage and those cuts. Three percent more students stayed enrolled this fall after their first year. The incoming freshmen class is 3% more diverse, their high school grade-point averages are higher, and 77% are from Indiana. International student enrollment is slightly higher, too.

Certainly, the university's enrollment needs to stabilize and not continue to decline. Gradual, sustainable growth in enrollment and graduation rates should be a goal for ISU. If so, those graduates, Hoosier families and the Terre Haute community will reap the rewards.

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