DeKALB – After reporting its lowest enrollment numbers in 50 years last year, Northern Illinois University on Tuesday reported its first enrollment increase in more than a decade despite the restrictions in place because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Enrollment for the fall semester rose to 16,769 according to the school's official census on the 10th day of attendance Tuesday, up 160 from last year. It was the first increase since 2008.
Sol Jensen, NIU vice president for enrollment management, marketing and communication, said the numbers reported Tuesday exceeded the expectations from NIU's 5-year enrollment plan which the university developed in 2019. Jensen said he was excited about an increase in students from DeKalb County as well, going from 77 incoming freshman in the fall of 2019 to 110 this year.
Fall 2020, year two of the enrollment strategy, was expected to be 16,749 – a number the school exceeded by 20 students.
"We planned on this year to be the year where we flattened enrollment," Jensen said. "And true to form we did, and we're excited not only by it flattening but by it increasing by 1%."
He said the plan allowed the university to remain relatively stable in a time of upheaval.
"Moving ahead even with [COVID-19] didn't disrupt too much," Jensen said. "We had the plan in place to guide us through this."
Jensen said part of that could have been because of students wanting to remain local during the pandemic, but he felt there was more at play than that.
"It's important to note the trends throughout the year, and we had a considerable increase in student applications well before [COVID-19]," Jensen said. "There was already increased interest in NIU from local high school seniors than there had been in quite some time."
Overall retention of first-year students was 78%, up 6% from last year. Retention rates for Black, Latino and Asian students were all up at least 10 percentage points from a year ago, according to the release.
New transfer students fell 7%, to 1,504 this year.
NIU continued to have success recruiting students of color, particularly Black students, according to the release from the school. NIU recorded its fifth-straight year of increased Black student enrollment in the freshman class. This year, 35% of entering freshmen are Black (up 2 percentage points), the highest that figure has been in university history. Latino enrollment also grew, accounting for 23% of the incoming class (up 3 percentage points).
The average GPA of incoming freshmen was 3.32, the highest in 11 years. The school recently started the Huskie Pledge, which guarantees that all tuition and fees will be covered by grants and scholarships for any Illinois students with high school GPAs of 3.0 or better and whose families have incomes of $75,000 or less.
Jensen said the numbers don't yet show whether the increase in GPA was related to the program.
"I think we're still trying to get a lot of data in," Jensen said. "I can tell you that we heard from quite a few students that this had a pretty big impact for them. That this was the difference between them going to college or not going at all. To have NIU commit to covering the gaps in their tuition and fees."
The NIU College of Law grew for the third straight year, up by 33 students (12%). Among all other graduate and professional programs, enrollment held steady at 4,185. In all, this year’s enrollment numbers are cause for" great optimism and pride," NIU President Lisa Freeman said in a statement.
“This is one of the most diverse and talented incoming classes that we have ever recruited," she said. "And we hope that this sets the trend for the years ahead."