Illinois public higher education takes hit to enrollment numbers

By James Krause

Enrollment at state universities in Illinois has been showing a downward trend, including NIU, and officials from universities across the state are looking for reasons and solutions.

NIU’s ten-day enrollment numbers were released Sept. 12 and with them came “good news” and a need to “grow enrollment in other areas,” acting President Lisa Freeman said during her Wednesday state of the university address.

Overall, undergraduate enrollment decreased by 4.4 percent from fall 2016. Meanwhile, graduate enrollment has gone down 7.5 percent — the biggest drop in graduate enrollment for NIU this decade.

Numbers are dropping not just in DeKalb but all across the state. Eastern Illinois University reported an overall enrollment decrease of 5 percent, which is the lowest decrease for the university in six years, according to a Sept. 8 EIU press release. Southern Illinois University’s enrollment dropped by nearly 9 percent this year. While graduate student numbers increased at Illinois State University by 2.4 percent, the institution reported a 1.7 percent drop in undergraduate students.

“There are a number of factors that have lead to fewer students going to public school in Illinois,” said State Rep. Robert Pritchard (R-Hickley).

793 days without a budget

Josh Norman, EIU associate vice president for Enrollment Management, said the lack of a state budget is part of the reason for enrollment decreases, according to the press release.

“Some of the trends [Norman and I] discussed include how the budget impasse has impacted enrollment cycles,” said Josh Reinhart, EIU public information coordinator. “Because no budget was in place, most state universities’ enrollment cycles were impacted. Prospective students who were seeking opportunities in the state for higher education, it made it harder for them to reach decisions due to instability. That instability over the last two years has contributed to some enrollment decline.”

Illinois went two years without a state budget, leaving universities to pay millions that previously would have been covered by state appropriations. The Illinois House of Representatives overrode a veto by Gov. Bruce Rauner on a budget in July, ending the nearly three-year impasse.

“The impacts of more than 700 days without support from the state cannot be undone quickly,” Freeman said in Wednesday’s address. “Fallout is widespread, and there’s still a great deal of uncertainty with Springfield for next year.”

SIU Chancellor Carlo Montemagno said the state budget crisis was why the university anticipated a drop in enrollment, as well.

Concerns about appropriations are ongoing, as the passing of a state budget to support higher education in Illinois may be only temporary, Pritchard said.

“The uncertainty of having a budget next year still remains,” Pritchard said. “We came together this year because we were in such a desperate situation.”

S&P Global Ratings was planning on downgrading the state of Illinois to junk-level credit, but the downgrade was put off by the budget passing. S&P still warned of a “fiscal hangover,” according to a July 12 Chicago Tribune article.

Illinois falling behind competition

While neighboring states like Iowa, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana saw statewide increases in enrollment from 2006 to 2015, Illinois was the only state in the region to see a decrease in enrollment, dropping statewide by 5 percent, according to a Sept. 13 Chicago Magazine article.

“Higher education in the Midwest, and probably the nation, is a bit more competitive than it has been in years past,” Reinhart said. “Sometimes states have border state agreements where they will reach out to prospective students from other states and offer them in-state tuition.”

Records about entry-level tuition rates from the Illinois Board of Higher Education show public state universities increased tuition prices by an average of 92 percent in the past ten years.

NIU has seen tuition rise by 98 percent, while Northeastern Illinois University has seen the highest increase over 10 years in the state at 112 percent. Michigan has seen the second highest hike in the Midwest at 62 percent, according to an annual survey by the College Board, a nonprofit education research company.

Pritchard said this is a primary reason for declining enrollment.

“The disinvestment in public education has also been a factor that caused universities to raise tuition and fees,” Pritchard said. “Because they’ve raised tuition and fees, it’s caused those numbers to be higher than those in our neighboring states.”

The increased tuition rates have also left some students frustrated with questions of their own.

“My whole argument with it is ‘where does the money go?’ ” said freshman anthropology major Kalin Upson.

NIU’s division of Enrollment Management, Marketing and Communications officials are looking at ways to help lure students to the university.

“I would love to have more students visit our campus,” said Sol Jensen, NIU vice president for Enrollment Management, Marketing and Communications. “I also think that one of the things we do really well here that I want to continue and expand on is the personalization we provide our students, and that starts from the day we start recruiting them all the way through their time until they’re graduating.”

Population, high school grad numbers falling

Jensen said he is also looking at graduation rates for high schools across the state, as he said colleges may be struggling because of depleting secondary graduates.

“There is a severe decline in the number of students who are graduating from high schools in the state of Illinois,” Jensen said.

The number of graduates in the state is projected to go down 2.8 percent by 2024, according to a 2014 study done by Ruffalo Noel Levitz, an enrollment management service.

Illinois is also experiencing a problem with people moving out of the state, as it lost more residents in 2016 than any other state in the U.S.

“If people can make a better life elsewhere, why wouldn’t they?” Upson said.

Despite the circumstances, Freeman showed a positive attitude during the address, as NIU saw increased freshman enrollment by 3 percent.

“We have to build on those gains and grow enrollment in other areas; and we can do this using the lessons we have learned about the importance of collaboration and the power of relationships as resources,” Freeman said.