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Local

NIU fall enrollment hits lowest level in 50 years

NIU officials predict turnaround to come as enrollment slide continues

DeKALB – Fall enrollment at Northern Illinois University has hit its lowest level in 50 years, according to data release Wednesday by the school, although university officials pointed to signs that a turnaround could be near.

The 10th-day enrollment totals for NIU showed a 3% year-over-year decline in total enrollment, with the 2019 headcount coming in at 16,609 students, compared with 17,169 in 2018. That’s despite a 2% increase in the incoming freshman class, which sits at 1,897 students. The report showed 1,611 new transfer students and 926 new graduate and professional students, both an increase from 2018.

Fall enrollment at NIU hasn’t been this low since 1966, when its reported total enrollment was 16,440. NIU’s total enrollment continued to grow through most of the 1970s until the school became the second largest by enrollment statewide. Records show fall enrollment has declined in each of the past 10 years since 2009, when there were 24,424 students enrolled.

Although some of Illinois’ public universities saw enrollment drop again this fall, some, including Illinois State and Eastern Illinois, reported increases.

Enrollment decline has been an issue at most of Illinois’ public universities recently. Illinois’ budget stalemate and financial woes, aggressive recruiting of students by institutions in other states, fewer high school graduates and fewer community college students in Illinois looking to transfer, have all been a drag on student recruitment.

As DeKalb County’s largest employer – with 7,500 workers, including full-time, part-time and student employees – NIU is a vital part of the local economy.

In a news release, university staff said lower enrollment numbers were to be expected because recent graduating classes were significantly larger than incoming ones, a statement they’ve made in past years. The release states that NIU staff, in anticipation of the lower numbers, rolled out a strategic enrollment management plan in late 2018.

The plan set a goal of enrolling 18,000 students by 2023 and also prioritizes a new framework for marketing the university to students and growing online courses and enrollment among off-campus students, staff have said.

Sol Jensen, NIU vice president for enrollment management, marketing and communication, said the historically low enrollment number didn’t startle him. Officials went into this with a plan that expected another enrollment dip this year, he said.

“We’re at the expectation that we set up for the plan,” Jensen said Wednesday. “We’re really tracking closely with that, so we’re really pleased.

“I think it helps people realize that we had an idea what was going to be happening. Even ... as we increase enrollment in all these new student populations, we expected to still go down overall.”

Jensen said the larger numbers of incoming freshmen are a sign that the plan is working. He said projections estimate that enrollment could level out by fall 2020 and then begin to increase to meet the 2023 goal.

He also cited an increase in merit-based scholarships awarded to new students, including transfer students. He said NIU typically awards about 85% of its students with some form of financial aid, which also can increase retention efforts.

“We have a student population who does have high financial need,” he said. “Knowing that our student population is very price sensitive, this additional aid is huge for them, not only to help them with this first year but to continue to graduation.”

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