Lewis University’s main campus in Romeoville was overflowing with a record number of freshmen students this fall – so much so that administrators at the Romeoville university had to put students on a dorm waiting list.
That type of enrollment spike is unusual compared to national and state enrollment trends. But Lewis and the University of St. Francis in Joliet have bucked those trends for the past several years.
Total headcount enrollment at Lewis rose from 6,616 last fall to 6,706 in 2014. And the university has experienced a 7.6 percent increase since 2010.
Over at USF, enrollment has grown 13 percent during the past five years. In 2005, total enrollment stood at 3,033. It peaked at 3,743 last year before dropping slightly this year to 3,710.
“We’re in a period right now when the projected number of high school graduates is declining and it’s projected to continue to decline,” said Ray Kennelly, senior vice president for strategic enrollment management at Lewis. “We’re bending that trend because of the courses we provide.”
Private four-year liberal arts colleges are seeing a small decline in enrollment
“The demographics of the Midwest are such that demographic groups are growing and declining at various rates,” said Jerry Fuller, executive director of Associated Colleges of Illinois.
The white high school graduate population in the Midwest is declining, while black and Hispanic populations are rapidly increasing. As a result, more students from low-income backgrounds are applying for college, Fuller said.
He said small colleges attract students with strong scholarship and financial aid programs.
The trend for Illinois’ private four-year colleges has been a stable but slightly growing enrollment, he said. Some states are seeing sharp declines and some have experienced steady growth.
“They’re taking a greater market share from public institutions,” Fuller said, including University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which this fall saw a 5.4 percent decline in freshmen enrollment.
Lewis is offering programs that Kennelly said are becoming more valuable in the workforce.
“So many of our academic programs are tied closely to emerging and current career opportunities,” he said, specifically noting the success of the university’s nursing and aviation career tracks.
The university’s research showed the most important factor students considered in determining where to attend college is whether it will get them a job after graduation.
A microcosm of Lewis’ rising enrollment seems to be interest in the university’s new Unmanned Aircraft Systems certificate track.
“So many industries across the globe from news gathering, police, to maybe Amazon will be using this technology,” Kennelly said. “We’ve tried to stay ahead of the curve in terms of programs.”
Student demographic shift
The story is similar at USF, which has seen enrollment growth of 13 percent during the past five years.
In 2005, total enrollment stood at 3,033. It peaked at 3,743 last year before dropping slightly this year to 3,710.
But Vice President for Admission and Enrollment Services Chuck Beutel said a more interesting shift was the fluctuating enrollment in USF’s undergraduate, graduate and adult degree programs.
“At the height of the recession we saw [enrollment in] graduate programs and adult degree programs decline,” he said. This was because of prospective non-traditional students tightening their budgets and their employers not paying as much for continuing education.
At the same time, traditional undergraduate enrollment steadily grew from 1,276 in 2009 to 1,421 in 2013.
Beutel said the growth and population boom in Will, Grundy and Kendall counties helped pad the effects of a struggling economy for private institutions like USF.
This year, the university’s graduate and adult degree enrollment grew slightly, while undergraduate enrollment dropped.
Many factors go into the drop of incoming high school graduates. But Beutel said one of the next troubling trends for higher educational institutions could be high school graduates declining to attend college.
“I’m anxious to see, are we going to look at the first class of high school grads that go to college at a lower rate than the previous year,” he said. “You’re seeing students question the value of college education now. More are taking a semester or year off and are working instead.”
Beutel said USF tries to maintain a “diversified enrollment portfolio” so the university can sustain changes in student trends.
“It’s constantly changing,” Beutel said.
BY THE NUMBERS
5-year total fall headcount enrollment for Lewis University and University of St. Francis:
• 2010: 6,230
• 2011: 6,461
• 2012: 6,644
• 2013: 6,616
• 2014: 6,706
University of St. Francis
• 2010: 3,286
• 2011: 3,330
• 2012: 3,442
• 2013: 3,743
• 2014: 3,710