Future of student quality for NIU means building mode, fierce competition


By Kyla Gardner

In his Vision 2020 plan, NIU President John Peters identified student quality as an area for improvement for the university over the next eight years. This is the third installment in a three-part series that has looked at past trends in student quality at NIU and comparisons to other Illinois universities. Today’s installment examines the future of student quality at NIU.

Jeremy Griesbach is the type of student NIU would like to enroll in fall 2014.

He is currently a junior at Naperville North, has a 3.2 GPA and, based on a practice ACT test, a projected ACT score of between 28 and 32.

President John Peters has identified student quality – the ACT scores and high school class ranks and GPA of incoming freshmen – as an area for improvement for NIU. According to a Student Recruitment, Retention and Success executive report, NIU looks to increase the academic preparedness of its freshmen class, which also includes the rigor of a student’s high school program along with student quality.


According to the executive report, NIU wants to raise its average ACT score to 23 in 2020 from 21.9 in 2011. The goal for high school class rank is to raise incoming freshmen in the top 10 percent of their high school class to 20 percent in 2020 from 8.9 percent in 2011. NIU also hopes to increase the percent of students in the top 25 percent of their high school class to 40 percent in 2020 from 29.4 percent in 2011.

The increases in average high school class rank are “ambitious, yet attainable,” according to the report.

Fierce Competition

Over the past seven years, the number of students graduating high school each year in 23 Northern counties in Illinois has been increasing, according to the 2010-2011 NIU Fact Book. That number was expected to peak in 2011 at 132,129 students graduating, a 21.9 percent increase since 2004. The growth is projected to now slow through 2020, with fewer students graduating high school in Northern Illinois in 2020 than 2011.

The number of prospective students is not only declining in Northern Illinois – the number of public high school graduates in the Midwest is projected to decrease 6 percent between 2007 and 2020, according to a report released by the National Center for Education Statistics in September.

Kitty McCarthy, associate vice president for Enrollment Management, said NIU will see increased competition to recruit students because of the population decline.

“In Illinois, schools like NIU wanting to grow [are] competing for a shrinking pool, and then you combine that with some of the out-of-state and even for-profit competition, and it will be fierce,” she said.

McCarthy said universities have been preparing their recruitment strategies for this increased competition.

“This population decline has been on everyone’s radar,” she said. “… Everyone’s been in a building mode, and it’s going to continue.”

Building Mode

For NIU, that building mode has meant an increase in recruitment strategies that are based on data, planning and personalization, said Brian Hemphill, vice president for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management, in an email interview.

Brad Hoey, director of Communications and Marketing, said some of NIU’s recruitment strategies are new, but some have just been enhanced. He said NIU’s new brand has helped to get NIU’s message out to prospective students.

McCarthy said another important recruitment strategy is communication.

“Part of it is … communicating with students earlier in the process – providing the right message at the right time in the right way,” she said.

To attract higher quality students, NIU offers academic opportunities students might not be able to find at other public universities – like the Research Rookies program, said Bill Nicklas, associate vice president for Institutional Planning and Sustainability.

NIU also plans to increase scholarship money for high-achieving students and expand the geographic base it pulls students from to include Central and Southern Illinois and other Midwestern states, according to the executive report.


NIU will not increase its admissions standards as part of its strategy. According to the report, raising the minimum ACT score to 21 would exclude about 1,100 enrolled freshmen. In fall 2011, 2,590 new freshmen enrolled at NIU.

Griesbach is looking at other schools, and his ACT and GPA will be a factor in where he applies. He is also looking at Illinois State University, DePaul University and Western University.

“I think ISU’s standards are little bit higher – ACT scores and GPAs,” said Griesbach’s mother, Diane. “So it might be a little bit harder to get into but possibly manageable.”

Griesbach has just started his college search; he doesn’t know whether he wants a big or small school, or one that’s urban or rural.

NIU has already gotten its message out to him – he attended an undergraduate information session at NIU’s Naperville Campus Feb. 27.

Whether it was the right message at the right time in the right way remains to be seen. As Griesbach moves through the college application and admission process over the next year and a half, he’ll have to choose which school’s freshmen profile of which he wants to take part.