DIXON – Ryan Downing admits that Sauk Valley Community College was not at the top of his short list of schools.
But the college sophomore couldn’t turn down a nearly free education: Downing ranked in the top 10 percent of his senior class at Sterling High School, so he qualified for a tuition waiver through the Sauk Scholars program.
Downing believes he made the right choice. He said he’s getting a well-rounded education with challenging courses taught by dedicated instructors. He’s also involved in several campus activities, including student government, theater and tennis.
“People joke that you just go there for those 2 years, that it’s not that great a place,” he said, “but it really is a fine establishment.”
Sauk attracts one in every three graduating high school seniors in its service area, which stretches from Chadwick in the northwest to Ashton in the east to Manlius in the south and encompasses more than a dozen school districts.
The college previously attracted 38 percent of high school seniors heading to college, but it now attracts 33 percent of graduating seniors, officials said.
That’s a 10 percent increase over 2010 (when it attracted 30 percent of seniors) and better than the 30 percent average at peer colleges.
“We’re really proud of that number of high school students,” President George Mihel said.
Sauk always has been successful at recruiting high school students because of its low tuition and academic reputation, officials said. But Sauk also has instituted a marketing campaign more focused on high school students in the past 2 years, they added.
Students choose Sauk for the value, officials said. They get small class sizes, quality instruction, and a variety of academic programs all for a low price compared to larger, 4-year universities, they said.
Students overwhelmingly (6.38 on a scale of 1 to 7, where 7 was most important) listed cost as a factor in their decisions to enroll at the college, according to a student survey in spring 2010.
In-district tuition at Sauk is $101 per credit hour. Resident tuition at the University of Illinois is $5,818 for 12 or more credit hours per semester, or $485 per credit hour for 12 credits and $323 per credit hour for 18 credits. Those rates do not include room and board or other fees.
More and more students are getting their first 2 years of postsecondary education at a community college, which for most students is general education courses, then completing their degree work at a university. They’re doing it to save money, officials said.
“If a student starts their college career at Sauk and transfers to the University of Illinois, or they start and finish at the University of Illinois, they still have a degree from the University of Illinois,” Mihel said. “The major difference is the tremendous tuition savings from spending their first 2 years here.”
About 40 percent of first-time, full-time, degree-seeking students at Sauk will transfer to a 4-year university within 4 years of enrollment, officials said.
Students also choose Sauk for its reputation, officials said.
Students listed academic reputation among the top factors (5.69 on a scale of 1 to 7) in their decisions to enroll at the college, according the 2010 student survey.
Sauk offers more than 100 programs of study, comparable to the number of offerings of many 4-year universities. The college has 25 degrees that enable students to transfer to a 4-year institution.
“The biggest recruiting tool we have is students who have been here and been successful and enjoyed being here,” Mihel said. “Students are very successful when they graduate from here. That’s a real testament to the quality of instruction and programs.”
Most students – nearly one-fifth – are undecided upon enrollment. But many settle into a career or degree track in due time.
The four most popular majors at Sauk are nursing (in which students earn an associate degree), criminal justice, business and radiologic technology. The number of students who major in nursing and criminal justice has increased greatly in the last 10 years, while the number of students who major in elementary education has decreased in that time.
Downing agrees Sauk is a good option for many students in the area, especially those who are looking for a smaller school closer to home during that fragile transition from high school to college.
“It really depends on how you feel you can do,” he said. “On one end, if you can do fine straight out of high school and into a 4-year college, that’s great. But on the other end, if you aren’t ready for that, ... then this is a very good path.”
Tracking Sauk enrollment
The estimated number of "full-time equivalent" students at Sauk Valley Community College for the first semester from 2002 to 2012. To calculate the number, the college takes the total number of enrolled hours and divides by 15 – representing the average number of hours a full-time student would be enrolled in for a semester.