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Chicago State University has just 86 freshmen this fall

Chicago State University on the South Side. | AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File

Chicago State University — still reeling from a scandal in which its president got $600,000 in severance to leave the South Side school after only nine months on the job — has only 86 total students in its freshman class this fall.

That’s less than a tenth of the size of its freshman class five years ago, when 1,058 first-year students enrolled, university figures show. And the 86 freshmen now on campus include part-time and full-time students, a university spokeswoman said.

Even with 211 students transferring in, the public university’s total enrollment has dropped to 3,578 — 2,352 of them undergrads, and 1,226 in graduate programs.

The number of students attending the school at 95th and King Drive has been dwindling for years. Two years ago, the school had 5,211 students and five years ago it had 6,882 students.

Spokeswoman Sabrina Land chalked up this year’s precipitous enrollment drop to Illinois’ budget stalemate, but she said the school’s total projections fell within planned targets. She also said freshman have always been a small part of the population of the school serving nontraditional students.

“The university projected a 20% enrollment decline based on the lack of MAP grant funding and financial resources like most public universities in the state of Illinois,” she said in an email. “The university continues to focus on improving academic excellence, student experience, increasing enrollment and revenue generation. We plan to rebuild in 2017.”

Besides the CSU board recently agreeing to pay the six-figure severance sum to former president Thomas Calhoun, CSU also threatened to shut its doors last spring because of a lack of state funding. With a student body comprised of nearly all minority and older students depending on state grants to pay tuition, CSU was hit harder than other public state universities when that money didn’t come through.

Calhoun declared a state of emergency at the school, and last April, announced the layoff of 300 staffers. By the time state money did arrive, it was too little, too late.

The school’s accreditation also has been at risk because of its shaky finances and staffing cuts. It long has struggled with its graduation rates.

“I don’t blame them,” grad student Enrique Duncan, 54, said of freshmen who’ve chosen other schools.

“If you want my true opinion, there should be an exodus out of here,” said Duncan, of Englewood, who is leaving after this semester to complete his mental health counseling degree at an online university.

“The university keeps telling everyone, ‘Hold on! It will be OK!’ But they won’t even explain why the president of the university abruptly left.”

“The trust isn’t there,” he said.

Darren Martin, 37, the school’s student government association president, maintains a positive outlook. “If kids saw Chicago State in a positive light, it could bring more students here, we need to change the narrative.” | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times
Darren Martin, 37, the school’s student government association president, maintains a positive outlook. “If kids saw Chicago State in a positive light, it could bring more students here, we need to change the narrative.” | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

Graduate student Sanora McCrea, 50, is so suspicious of school administrators, she suspects the number 86 is inflated. “I think that’s a ballooned number,” she said.

“But whatever the number is, it’s down,” McCrea said. “With all the bad publicity this school’s been getting . . . parents are choosing to send their children somewhere else . . . why would you want to send your child to a school that you don’t know within a year or so it could be closed?”

Darren Martin, 37, the school’s student government association president, maintained a positive outlook.

“We’ve got to find a new way of recruiting students and letting people know Chicago State is open,” he said. “If kids saw Chicago State in a positive light, it could bring more students here. We need to change the narrative.”

Contributing: Mitch Dudek