Enrollment at many Illinois public universities has declined in the past decade. This coincides with the state approaching two years without a full spending plan. As a result, college-bound students have tough decisions to make.
“Finding a college that was more affordable was the better goal than trying to find a college that was my dream,” said Emani Brinkman, a Sycamore High School senior who is choosing to go out of state for college to study communications.
“For most schools, it’s 40, 30, 50,000 [dollars] a year, and you don’t have that in your pocket," Brinkman said. "You have to look out; you have to get scholarships; you have to see how much you get from financial aid.”
Classmate Sarah Geoghegan also chose a private, out-of-state college to study pre-law. Their high school is just a few miles from Northern Illinois University.
“If I would have stayed in Illinois, if I decided to go to a public university in Illinois, it’s just another added uncertainty – one that I don’t have to deal with when going out to Marquette," she said.
Geoghegan said some of that uncertainty comes from the state’s continuing budget gridlock, and whether schools will have appropriations for funds like MAP grants.
Jennifer Charles, a counselor at Sycamore High School, said the school uses an online program called Naviance. It surveys students on their interests and needs, and gives them results for what might be a good fit for their college experience.
Charles said she doesn’t try to sway students in a certain direction.
"We don’t know what’s best for them," she said. "The student and their parents know what’s best for them. We’re just here to make sure that they’re getting what they want and that we’re here to support them to the best of our ability.”
Charles said she sees about a 50-50 split of students choosing to stay in-state.
According to NIU spokesman Joe King, the university's enrollment has steadily dipped since fall 2006, when there were more than 25,000 students. Ten-day enrollment numbers for fall 2016 showed just more than 19,000 students.
Larry Pinkleton is NIU’s associate vice president for finance and budget, and acting chief financial officer. He said there isn’t a simple explanation for why more students aren’t choosing NIU.
“The admissions comes into play; the level of financial aid that can be offered to a student [comes into play.] I think when you really start to peel that onion back and look at all the myriad of factors, it’s hard to pinpoint any one thing," he said.
Pinkleton said one thing is clear: fewer students enrolled negatively affects NIU’s bottom line.
“Our success is completely predicated on the student success," he said. "The student has to make the decision to come; the student has to make a decision to stay; and the student ultimately makes a decision to walk across the platform and get that degree.”
Schools like the University of Illinois and Illinois State University are seeing a different trend; their enrollment numbers have climbed in recent years.
U of I trustees recently endorsed a plan to increase enrollment by nearly 15 percent at its three campuses over the next five years. University President Tim Killeen said it aims to curb the number of students who are going out of state for college.
Pinkleton said that means there's work to do to keep their slice of the enrollment pie.
“As the pie shrinks, it places more and more pressure on institutions in the state of Illinois to try to hold onto their share of the students that are either in the state or might choose to come to the state," he said. "And then hopefully try to compensate with any population losses at the state, by getting a bigger piece of somebody else’s enrollment.”
So how is NIU trying to get a bigger taste?
Harlan Teller is the school’s interim vice president of undergraduate enrollment management. He said the university doesn’t have an issue with retaining students. It’s a matter of yield, or getting those who are admitted to NIU to actually enroll.
Teller said the yield rate is only 23 percent, which he compares to the national average of 36. He added it takes a lot of effort to increase that number.
“What I like to say is it takes a university to enroll a student," he said. "And what I mean by that it is, from the time when a student signs an inquiry card, from when they’re sitting in a classroom at NIU – it’s a very long journey. And it requires the best efforts of a lot of different people across many divisions, units and colleges.”
Teller said the administration is working to improve its communication strategies, and based its plan on results from a brand initiative survey a couple of years ago.
“One of the things that really came through to me was that our brand image or the attributes we’re best known for were different from stakeholder group to stakeholder group, which told me at the time two years ago that we weren’t necessarily communicating as cohesively with as sharp a set of messages and themes that we need to," he said.
In response, Teller said the university is developing new ways to reach prospective students. He cited the administration's recent launch of a brand awareness campaign, which includes new billboards on some of the state's busiest interstates.
Pinkleton said it’s important for potential students to know what they’re getting at the university.
“One of the things the branding initiative seeks to do is to paint a very clear picture on the value to those students who may not be part of that other institution, in fact choosing to come to NIU," he said.
Teller said effective communication means making every dollar count.
“A big thing we’re going to be looking at is, ‘How can we best do that? How can we do a better job at being much more precise and strategic about spending our ad media dollars?’ Which is frankly not as many dollars as what some other universities have," he said. "'How do we get really efficient and impactful in how we spend that money?’”
Teller said he hopes the campaign can bring in more non-traditional candidates, including international or out-of-state students.
Sycamore High School counselor Jennifer Charles said while she doesn't force students in a particular direction, she does have advice for those on the higher education hunt.
“Make sure that’s a place you want to be at for 4-plus years, because that’s going to be like your second home,” she said.
And in this case, those keeping an eye on enrollment at NIU are trying to keep the hometown team on each students’ shortlist.