NIU on enrollment decrease

By Jessica Sabbah

Chicago resident Craig Thompson is a junior at Marist High School and has began his college search. He is looking for a college that is semi-close to home and somewhere he can have an enjoyable college experience.

Thompson is just one example of the thousands of high school students that institutions like NIU hopes to recruit.

Over the past four years, NIU’s enrollment has decreased by about 5.8 percent. Although a number of factors go into that number, the real question is why the decline has occurred.

In fall 2006, 25,313 students were enrolled at NIU- the peak of the university’s enrollment between fall 2001 and fall 2010. Four years later, enrollment at NIU would stand at 23,850, only 67 students more than the fall 2001 figure of 23,783.

The drop in enrollment from fall 2006 to fall 2010 accounts for a difference of 1,463 students.

Target enrollment

NIU’s target enrollment for next fall is 23,768, said Brian Hemphill, vice president of Student Affairs and Enrollment Management.

“A key reason in terms of why [it is set at the given target number is] we have to look at the number of high school graduates,” Hemphill said. “We have to look at the transfer student population. We have to look at what’s going at the institution from a retention standpoint and then look at what the overall targets will be for the institution.”

A five-year enrollment target has been set at 25,400 for fall 2015, Hemphill said.

“A part of that is just looking at the size and scope and growth of the institution,” Hemphill said. “When you think about our facilities, when you think about our infrastructure, we have an optimal size, and the 25,000 mark is our optimal size for the institution.”

The target enrollment was set through the Enrollment Management Strategic Planning process, Hemphill said. The strategic plan has yet to be unveiled. In the past, the Enrollment Management Council would set the enrollment target number and recommend it to the president each year.

High school seniors

The number of high school seniors in 23 northern Illinois counties is projected to increase and peak in 2011 with 132,129, according to the just-published NIU Data Book for 2010-11.

In fall 2006, there were 115,177 high school seniors in the 23 northern Illinois counties, and the number of high school seniors in fall 2010 was projected to be at 124,392, according to the data book. Over the four-year span, the amount of high school seniors grew by about eight percent.

Katherine McCarthy, associate vice president of Student Affairs and Enrollment Management, said the number of public high school graduates in Illinois is actually in a decline after peaking in 2009.

“We hit our peak in spring of 2009, and will be declining through spring of 2015,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy said the peak was at about 135,000 high school seniors and will level out at 128,000.

The Northern Star attempted to contact McCarthy to clarify the discrepancies between the NIU Data Book’s figures and the ones given by her, but did not receive a response by press time.

With thousands of Illinois high school students preparing to graduate each year, the task of choosing a college is considered arguably one of the biggest decisions that students will make in their lives. Alex Winter, of Vernon Hills, attended NIU’s open house on Friday.

The junior Vernon Hills High School student, who wants to major in graphic design, is considering NIU after speaking with a counselor from the university.

Winter said the biggest factors in his college search are if the school has the major he is looking for and the location of the university.

Accompanying him to the open house was his mother Pat, who graduated from NIU in 1984. Pat Winter said she enjoyed her time at NIU, and said she had no hesitations about her son following in her footsteps.

She said she would prefer Alex to go to a school like NIU with more options for him to explore than a speciality school, in case he changes his mind about his major.

“It would be nice to have a school that has what he is interested in,” Pat Winter said.

Alex is also considering going to his local community college, College of Lake County in Grayslake, as well as Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis.

Rockford resident Angela Linley also has NIU on her list of colleges for consideration and attended Friday’s open house. Linley, a junior at Jefferson High School, plans to major in engineering. Her interest in NIU was piqued at the Get Wise Program in 2007. The program is a week-long engineering camp held at NIU.

Linley said she was interested in NIU because she heard that the university has a good engineering program. Her biggest factors in her college search are the amount of scholarships she would receive and the location. She said she particularly liked the location of NIU.

“It’s close enough, but just far enough,” Linley said.

Linley said her biggest concern is not knowing people. She is also considering Morris Institute of Technology in Morrison and the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

For mom, Laura Linley, her biggest factor was the preparation for the workforce and internships.

Other factors

Several factors affect a university’s enrollment.

Hemphill said one positive factor that relates to enrollment is NIU’s engagement within the community and the region.

“We have over 180,000 alumni that are still [in Illinois] of the over 200,000 that we’ve graduated,” he said, adding that students, alumni, families and counselors have also been a positive factor.

One negative factor that may impact enrollment is NIU’s facilities. However, the university has made significant steps to address that issue, Hemphill said.

Some facility projects that are in the works include the impending construction of the new residence hall and the Cole-Stevens Hall renovations, he said.

“Another negative is that when you look in our particular region, it has changed significantly in that everyone from publics and privates to for-profit institutions are in this area recruiting now,” Hemphill said. “And so now it’s stiff, stiff competition, and that has changed quite a bit over the last 10 years which has made us have to think about our strategies and approaches to recruit students.”

Hemphill said two specific changes in terms of competition are that more institutions have set up regional offices in close proximity to NIU and other universities are looking at how they leverage their scholarship and aid in a way that makes them extremely competitive.

Laura Linley said her biggest concern when helping pick a college for her daughter would be safety. This concern, however, is not specific to NIU, she said.

“It’s a big college, and that’s my biggest concern,” she said.

In light of crime issues, some people in the NIU community may attribute the lower enrollment to concerns about safety on campus.

“I would not say that we have an image problem,” Hemphill said. “I would say we have a perception problem.”

McCarthy said her office does not hear the concern of crime from students and families.

“I think campus safety is a factor in every student search process, and one of the things we work hard to do is make sure that students understand the facts and the families,” she said.