Retention and graduation rates affect students, university


The average graduation rate for NIU students from fall 2011 to fall 2006 stands at 26 percent for four-year students, 47.8 percent for five-year students and 52.5 percent for six-year students.

By Jessica Sabbah

Since fall 2006, NIU has seen a decline in enrollment by about 5.8 percent.

Although NIU is not the only four-year Illinois public institution to suffer a dip in enrollment between fall 2006 and fall 2010, other schools have grown over the past four years.

NIU’s decrease in enrollment comes during a time when the number of high school seniors in 23 northern counties in Illinois has increased steadily over recent years and is projected to peak in 2011.

The Northern Star takes a closer look into enrollment at NIU, how the university compares to other universities and what factors affect enrollment.

This is the final installment of a three-part series.


DeKALB | When Anthony Perkins came to NIU in the fall of 2007 as a freshman psychology major, he didn’t anticipate that he would have to leave the university nearly two years later for financial reasons.

“I was able to keep on paying, but I had a loan that fell through because of my Master Promissory Note not going through properly,” he said.

After paying his portion, he said he ended up owing an additional $3,000. He had to take the semester off in result and after six months had to begin to start paying back his loans. He chose to work and pay off his debt before returning.

Perkins is among the percentage of NIU students who leave the university for any number of reasons before earning a degree. Retention and graduation rates affect the number of students enrolled annually at NIU. 

On average since fall 2001, the first-year retention rate was about 76.3 percent, the second-year retention rate was about 63.9 percent, the third-year retention rate was about 60.3 percent and the fourth-year retention rate was about 32.3 percent. Beyond four years, the fifth-year retention rate was about 8.8 percent and the sixth-year retention rate is about 3 percent. These figures only account for students who started at NIU as new freshmen.

Of the 3,262 new freshmen that started in fall 2006, the first-year retention rate was 78 percent, the second-year rate was 64 percent, the third-year rate was 61 percent and the four-year rate was 30 percent, according to NIU’s 2010-2011 Data Book.  

Since fall 2001, the average four-year graduation rate for undergraduate students was about 26 percent, the five-year rate was about 47.8 percent and about 52.5 percent for the six-year rate.

Of the freshmen who started in fall 2006, 28 percent of the 3,262 students graduated in four years, the book states.

NIU Vice Provost Earl Seaver said the university would like the first-year retention rate at 80 percent or higher and the four-year graduation rate to be greater than 30 percent by 2015. The exact numerical goals have yet to be released by NIU as part of the Strategic Planning Task Force in regard to retention.

How Rates compare

In order to see how NIU compares to other universities nationally in terms of graduation and retention rate, Seaver said it’s important to consider elements of the profile of the students that attend NIU; like ACT score and high school rank.

Seaver said NIU is considered a selective public research institution. If NIU’s retention and graduation rates were compared to a university like Northwestern University, for example, the figures wouldn’t be comparable because NU is more selective and a different type of institution.

For the middle 50 percentile of the selective institutions the six-year graduation rate ranged nationally from 44 to 56 percent, Seaver said. From fall 2001, NIU’s six-year graduation rate ranged from 51 to 56 percent, according to the data book.

“So even though we’re kind of in the middle, I think our feeling as an institution is that we want to be at least in the top 25 percent so that puts us above 56 percent,” he said. “We would much rather be up closer toward 60, but we want to be above the 75th percentile.”

Like graduation rates, NIU’s first-year retention rates land around the middle nationally compared to similar selective public research institutions.

Seaver said the first-year retention rate runs from 73 to 80 percent of the middle 50 percentile nationally.

“Do we want our retention numbers to be higher? Absolutely,” Seaver said. “Ideally our goal should be any student who comes here to Northern should graduate. So my goal would be a 100 percent. That’s highly unrealistic, but if you start here with us, we should do everything we can to help you graduate. That should be the agreement that we have.”

Why students leave

There are a number of reasons that may contribute to a student’s decision to leave the university.

Some reasons Seaver said his office has heard from students were financial, the decision to attend community college, students who change their major and NIU doesn’t have the one they want, a desire to transfer to be with a boyfriend or girlfriend and changes in family situations.

“We hear more about finances than we have in the past,” Seaver said.

Perkins, who attended NIU from fall 2007 to spring 2009, is one example of a student leaving NIU due to financial reasons.

“NIU is just a fantastic school…large enough to make you feel like you’re on a large-scale campus but small enough where you can interact with people and see familiar faces on campus,” he said. “You get kind of the best of both worlds.”

Perkins, who is from Chicago, chose NIU because of its location and its affordability.

“It was only about a 40-minute drive [from my house], and it was inexpensive compared to other universities I got into,” he said. “It was a logical choice.”

Perkins said he hopes to return to the university next fall.

Sam Montgomery, former NIU nursing major, left the university for a different reason.

“I was gearing toward a different degree rather than nursing,” she said.

Montgomery, who attended NIU from fall 2008 until spring 2009, transferred to Rasmussen College in Aurora in fall of 2009 to pursue a degree in massage therapy. She graduated with an associate’s degree in March.

Montgomery said what originally drew her to NIU was that she heard NIU had a good nursing program and she liked how it wasn’t that far away from her hometown Oswego.

“If I was still doing nursing, I probably would have stayed [at NIU],” she said.

Another reason

Community colleges saw increases in enrollment during the fall 2006 and fall 2009 semesters. Every community college’s enrollment that the Northern Star looked at, except Triton College in River Grove, experienced growth during that time period. Triton College suffered a decrease of 0.2 percent. The Northern Star looked at community colleges in common areas where students are from.

The amount of increases ranged from a 1.3 percent increase at Kishwaukee College to about a 19.1 percent growth at Waubonsee Community College.

On average, of the community colleges that the Star looked at, there was a growth of 9.1 percent during the three-year time period.

The Office of Student Academic Success, which was established in the summer of 2009, is one way the university is trying to identify students at risk for leaving.

Dana Gautcher, NIU’s director of Office of Student Academic Success, said the office works with the university community to identify barriers that may prevent students from graduating, and work to remove those barriers and empower students to achieve success.

Gautcher said the reasons students leave the university aren’t always simple because student life is very complex and balance a myriad of life roles and responsibilities.

“Some of the most common reasons students cite for leaving include finances, familial or relationship obligations or the inability to be accepted into a limited admission program at NIU,” Gautcher said in an email.

Fall to spring enrollment figures

NIU also loses students from fall to spring each academic year.

Between fall 2006 and spring 2011, NIU lost on average about 6.8 percent of its students from fall to spring each year, amounting to on average 1,669.8 students.

NIU had the largest decline in enrollment this year at about 7.6 percent, amounting to a loss of 1,810 students, between fall 2001 and spring 2011. NIU’s smallest decline in enrollment from fall to spring during that 10-year period was in the 2004-05 academic year with about a 4.9 percent drop and 1,219 fewer students.

Students who started in the fall don’t return to NIU in the spring for several reasons, one being winter graduation.

Seaver said on average 1,200 undergraduates graduate in fall while 2,200 graduate in spring. 

Brian Hemphill, NIU’s vice president of Student Affairs and Enrollment Management, said other reasons could include students who are studying abroad and internships.

Katherine McCarthy, NIU’s associate vice president of Student Affairs and Enrollment Management, said in terms of the new student and enrollment side, the pool of potential candidates of the spring are much harder to identify.

“For fall enrollment, we are working with a high school graduating class,” she said. “We know who those students are. For spring enrollment, we don’t have that kind of pool so spring enrollment is really driven by students who might have graduated from high school the spring prior but did not enroll in college at all and then you have some mid-year transfers.”

Managing Editor Matt Liparota contributed to this story.