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Our View

Our view: NIU enrollment declines not irreversible or inevitable

Enrollment at Northern Illinois University now has declined in nine consecutive school years and is down 19 percent since 2013. This fall, it declined 4.8 percent year-over-year.

Some people talk about this trend with a note of resignation, as though the declines are irreversible and NIU likely never again will see enrollment as large as it was less than a decade ago.

Some of the state’s other “directional” schools are in similar circumstances: Southern Illinois University-Carbondale and Western Illinois University both reported enrollment declines of 10 percent or more this fall, continuing a downward spiral that began early in the decade and was exacerbated by the two-year state budget crisis.  

The news was not all bad this semester, however.

Eastern Illinois University in Charleston reported a 7.1 percent year-over-year enrollment increase this fall. The number of incoming freshmen at Eastern increased almost 25 percent over last fall.

The school had recruiting success because it decided to offer more to students, and community members decided to support the effort to revive a school that is a key economic driver for their community. According to Carbondale’s The Southern Illinoisan newspaper, Eastern introduced seven new majors this school year. School officials hired a marketing firm to change their branding and message. A group of Charleston-area businesspeople raised money to create scholarships for students living within a 60-mile radius of the campus. Of those offered a scholarship, 81 percent decided to enroll at Eastern, The Southern reported.

If they want to erase a 33 percent enrollment decline that has hit the school since 2013, Eastern officials will need to repeat this year’s performance for the next three to four years.

Even with the gains, the enrollment at Eastern is 7,415, far less than the 17,169 students enrolled at NIU this year. However, the arrow is pointed up there for the first time in years.

At NIU, the Board of Trustees has made efforts to contain costs for students. They have kept tuition flat since the 2015-16 school year, capped tuition for any student who takes 12 credit hours or more a semester, made efforts to reduce student fees and have approved offering in-state tuition to out-of-state students. The school makes information about seeking scholarships available on its website.

Enrollment has continued to fall, however, which means it’s not enough. Last week, NIU board President Wheeler Coleman said board members believe that acting President Lisa Freeman is the person who can turn the university around.

That starts with taking stock of the institution and finding ways to appeal to more students, who historically have chosen the school because of its proximity to the Chicago area, its affordability and its reputation for providing great training for future teachers, journalists, business professionals and engineers, among others.

Communities in DeKalb County and around Illinois are suffering as enrollment at regional universities has dropped. As business owners in Charleston banded together to draw more people to Eastern, those in this area could support an effort to bring more students to DeKalb via scholarships. Already, current students are encouraged to bring siblings to campus – to see a football game, say – and maybe more of this can be encouraged.

There’s no question that the job market is strong, competition from schools from other states is fierce, and the two-year Illinois budget stalemate damaged the state’s reputation.

This fall’s results from EIU show that continued decline is not inevitable, and that the setbacks that have been suffered are not irreversible if community members and school officials work together.

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