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 three-part series will examine past trends in student quality, comparisons to other public Illinois universities and the future of student quality at NIU.

Alexander Buckles graduated high school in 2007 with an ACT score of 19 and a high school GPA of 2.7. One year later, Laura Fenwick graduated with a 30 ACT score and a 3.9 high school GPA.

Though their achievements in their high school careers differed, both Buckles and Fenwick entered NIU as freshmen, contributing to the diverse makeup of student quality at the university.

The average quality of incoming freshman students at NIU - defined by their ACT scores, high school GPAs and high school class ranks - has remained fairly consistent over the last 10 years.

When Buckles entered the university in fall 2007, the average ACT score of new, incoming freshmen was 22.8, as it was for Fenwick in 2008. The average for 2011 was 22.7.


While the student quality of enrolled NIU students has remained consistent, NIU has attracted more higher quality applicants overall in the past 10 years.

A sharp increase in 2008 sent the average high school class rank of fall freshmen applicants from the top 49.9 percent of their graduating class in 2007 to the top 60.3 percent, and the average ACT score from 19.9 in 2007 to 21.4.


NIU recruits students through different strategies such as high school visits, college fairs and marketing.

In 2009, NIU reorganized its communications department to create the university relations department.

Bradley Hoey, director or Communication and Marketing, said one of the goals of this reorganization was to have a unified message in its marketing material, and to get the message out for specific departments and programs that were left to do that on their own before.

The State of Illinois

The quality of the population of potential students for NIU’s incoming freshman classes - high school graduates - has increased in the last nine years.

Since 2002, when Illinois made the ACT test mandatory for every 11th grader, the average ACT score rose from 20.1 to 20.9 in 2011. The ACT, a measure of what students have learned in high school, is scored out of 36 points.

The difference of 0.8 points in 10 years is a significant difference, said ACT spokesperson Ed Colby.

“The growth in Illinois is not something to take lightly,” he said.

Colby said students’ ACT scores are an accurate predictor of their success in their first year of college and also makes them more likely to graduate.

But more than test scores factor into that first year, he said.

“It doesn’t guarantee anything, obviously, because a lot more than just what you’ve learned goes into college success,” Colby said. “Students have to apply themselves.”

The Importance of Quality

Brian Hemphill, vice president for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management, also noted in an email interview that individual motivation impacts a student’s success in college.

On average, however, he said student quality impacts retention rates, graduation rates and overall student performance.

“I think it speaks to the overall NIU experience in that good students want to be here and we offer programs and service that appeal to those students,” said Kitty McCarthy, associate vice president for Enrollment Management.

Hemphill also said student quality is important to NIU because it will help with other Vision 2020 goals of increasing the number of students who study at NIU from locations in southern and central Illinois and will help increase overall enrollment.

Admission Decision

For Buckles and Fenwick in 2007 and 2008, NIU wasn’t their first-choice school, but once they decided to attend, they appreciated the programs of study they entered.

With a GPA below NIU’s required 2.75, Buckles entered NIU on the Chance Program, which allows students ranking below NIU’s admissions standards to submit a personal essay for further consideration of their application.

Fenwick, now a senior photography and business administration major, hoped to attend either Ball State or University of Wisconsin-Madison, but they didn’t offer her aid packages, while NIU did.

“[NIU] had my specific majors and departments for both of those so it didn’t seem like a compromise at all,” Fenwick said. “...It was definitely the right decision for me.”

Buckles is happy with his decision to attend NIU, too, and has stayed for graduate school in the public administration program.

“I didn’t get accepted to Illinois State and at the same time though, I wanted to study at Northern,” he said. “I’m glad they did accept me.”