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Many public and private institutions of higher education in Illinois have seen student numbers continue to drop over the last decade. Contributing factors include the state's ongoing financial instability, a shrinking population overall, and increased competition from other Midwestern colleges and universities offering lucrative financial aid packages.We are unpacking the effect of students leaving Illinois for college and what these schools are trying to do to buck the trend. Enrollment Exodus is a week-long collaborative reporting effort by public radio stations across the state.Special thanks to contributing stations: Illinois Newsroom, NPR Illinois, Tri States Public Radio, WBEZ, WGLT, WNIJ, and WSIU.

Enrollment Exodus: What Makes ISU Successful?

Despite enrollment growth, Jana Albrecht said staying between 20 and 21,000 students in a big key to ISU's success.
Despite enrollment growth, Jana Albrecht said staying between 20 and 21,000 students in a big key to ISU's success.

Illinois State University had another great recruiting year, with a 1.2% increase in total enrollment and the largest freshman class in 33 years. It's another stable year. Several other schools throughout the state continued years of enrollment drops.

ISU Associate Vice President for Enrollment Management Jana Albrecht said while all colleges and universities have similar practices to attract prospective students, she believes part of the reason for the increase in enrollment at ISU was its newly simplified application. Albrecht said a new on-line interface made it easier for students to apply, and applications rose 30%.

Albrecht said she also believes ISU's ability to retain or increase enrollment has a lot to do with the prime location.

“That’s one of the things we tout and explain to students and families,” Albrecht said. “That we are a destination that is in a great community, we have a great partnership with the community and we have access to several different ways for the student and family to get here and to get home.”

Public University Enrollment - Fall 2019


Another major factor supporting steady enrollment, Albrecht said, is the College of Education, producing teachers for a state facing a shortage in that profession. Albrecht said this works in the school’s favor.

“Another advantage for us having that ability to put teachers into the schools in Illinois is that they market for us. It’s not knowingly that they do this, but those teachers that we put back into Illinois schools, if they’ve had a good experience here we often will find that students have come to visit ISU because teachers have told them it’s a good idea.”

If students are on the fence, Albrecht said the Town of Normal's Public-Private investment of more than $200 million in the Uptown district next to campus often makes a postive difference.

Campus environment is important as well.

“People know that we’re a friendly and welcoming campus. We get that in all the feedback we get from students and families who actually come to the university. We have a faculty who are engaged, they talk to prospective students, and they let those students know that they are interested in working with them over the next four years.”

She also cites programs like University College—which helps the over 1,000 undecided ISU students to decide what major is best for them—being a unique selling point.

There’s also the ease with which community college students can transfer to ISU.

“ISU is known as a place where it is easy to transfer courses in and out of the institution,” Albrecht said. “So I think maybe we do have a leg up in that it is fairly easy for transfer students to determine what they need at ISU and we have these relationships so community college counselors can very easily say, ‘Here’s what you need to take for the first two years of your degree so you’ll have an easy transition into Illinois State University.'"

This extends to transfers from other four-year institutions, including out of state.

“I would say we’re probably up to 20, 25% of our transfer students actually come from institutions out of the state,” Albrecht said.

How can ISU continue to succeed if the trend of students leaving Illinois continues, especially with a drop in high school graduates projected at the end of the next decade?

“It may not be the same kind of students,” Albrecht said. “We may have nontraditional students, we may have international students on campus. So we’re really going to have to be prepared to offer the educational experience that all students may want moving into the future.”

Albrecht said these changes might come with increased offering of programs on campus or even expansion of the online programs in order to adapt to these changing populations.

Albrecht said she believes ISU should keep a steady population, which she believes an attractive feature for incoming students.

"We don’t necessarily want to grow to be 25,000 because we know this 20,000 to 21,000 number has made us successful in the past and it gives the students a feel like they have all these opportunities because it is a large campus but they still get that special attention from faculty and staff.”An excerpt of WGLT's interview with Albrecht.WGLT's full interview with Jana Albrecht.

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Enrollment Exodus: What Makes ISU Successful?

Copyright 2019 WGLT

Sean Newgent is a senior journalism major at Illinois State University. He's an intern for the GLT newsroom.
GLT Assistant News Director Charlie Schlenker grew up in Rock Island, Illinois and graduated from Augustana College. He has spent more than three decades in radio and has won numerous state and national awards for journalism. He lives in Normal with his family.