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How NIU's Enrollment & Retention Numbers Went Up -- Despite COVID-19


Enrollment at Northern Illinois University went up this fall for the first time in a decade, despite pandemic concerns.

At the beginning of 2020, the university’s enrollment projections looked good. A plan was in place, applications were up. Then COVID-19 happened, and it became impossible to predict how the fall numbers would look -- if students returned at all.

Sol Jensen is NIU’s Vice President for Enrollment Management, Marketing and Communications. He said that one of the most important improvements was with local, northern Illinois students.

“We didn't want students to forget about us," he said, "even though we're right here in the back of their backyard.” 

Enrollment from DeKalb County students jumped up 43%. That could be, in part, due to students wanting to stay close to home during the pandemic. But Jensen said that local applications were at that same mark before schools shut down in March.

Jensen said that new student enrollment was just one part the school’s focus. The other was keeping the ones they already had -- and they did see an increase in retention rates.

Now, the challenge is to make sure students want to stay, with much of the traditional college experience erased because of the COVID-19.

“How do we keep the students engaged," said Jensen, "when you know, they're not able to be as social with as many students, and we certainly don't have as many who are physically living on our campus as we normally would?” 

He said academic colleges have handled the bulk of that work, interacting with students in and out of class.

NIU also expanded a new student mentoring program where students can ask about classes, ways to keep on track for graduation, and concerns about what they can -- and can’t -- do on-campus this semester.

Along with mentoring, NIU hired more advisors to help it more quickly identify when students might be struggling, which Jensen said also helped raise retention rates.

Total on-campus undergrads and graduates increased this fall. The number of off-campus students fell -- surprisingly, Jensen said -- during the pandemic. He said he can’t quite explain that.

Jensen said the university is especially proud of the diversity and academic profile of its incoming class.