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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.

'Value, Quality, and Location' Helping To Boost UIC Enrollment

Marc Monaghan/WBEZ
Senior Angelique Moore enjoys a spring day on the University of Illinois Chicago campus. Bucking a trend at Illinois universities statewide, UIC is seeing record enrollment.

Isabel Campbell was standing in a long line of freshmen waiting to move into the new dorms on the University of Illinois at Chicago campus last month when she was approached by a man wearing a blue polo and sneakers.

He easily looked like every other dad there, unloading suitcases, lamps and storage containers full of Ramen noodles.

But it was Michael Amiridis, the school’s chancellor. And he wanted to help her move in.

Campbell is one of the lucky freshmen who get to live in these new dorms, with their sweeping views of the city, sparkling clean bathrooms and study rooms, and brand new furniture.

Amenities like the new dorm are just one of many reasons Campbell and many others are attending UIC in record numbers. She’s the first in her family to go to college and wanted to be close to home.

“I didn’t want to be that far from my family,” said Campbell, who is from Aurora. “It’s a really good school and in the city.”

Illinois public universities have seen enrollments decline — in some cases, drastically — over the past few years. But the story is different on Chicago’s Near West Side, where UIC is seeing record enrollment and campus is filled with new construction projects, including the brand new residence.

Applications are up over the last five years and the school is accepting more students. Nearly 80% of last year’s applicants got an acceptance letter. This year’s total enrollment topped 33,000 for the first time.

Credit Kate McGee/WBEZ
University of Illinois at Chicago Chancellor Michael Amiridis helps students move into one of the school's new dorms in August, 2019.

Amiridis says UIC’s appeal is becoming clearer to students.

“What they see at UIC is value, quality and location,” he said. “It’s very difficult to beat this combination — value in terms of our price tag, quality in terms of what we’re offering, our recognition in rankings, and then location, location, location. Chicago is our campus and they really appreciate this and want to live here.”

The location around UIC has changed dramatically over the past two decades. Gentrification paved the way for new apartment buildings and retail. UIC has taken advantage of the change, moving from a traditional commuter school to one with residential housing and a broader student experience.

The changing area also has made the school more attractive to suburban students who want to attend school in the city. Meanwhile, UIC has remained relatively affordable compared to private schools in Chicago. In-state tuition is around $13,000.

Plus, Amiridis says they’re actively recruiting more in high schools across Chicago, nearby suburbs and around the state.

At move-in day, freshman Arionna Givens says she came to UIC to meet people who didn’t look like her.

“In high school and grammar school I was always around predominantly black, African American kids,” said Givens, who grew up in Chicago. “So, I came here for diversity.”

About one-third of UIC’s population is Hispanic, while 18% are Asian, 8% are African American and 12% are international students.

Credit Marc Monaghan/WBEZ
UIC has been growing each year, with this year's enrollment at more than 33,000 for the first time.

As the number of diverse undergraduates increases nationally, including low-income and first generation students, many universities realize they need to do a better job helping those students succeed. Amiridis says UIC has always served those students and many support systems already are in place.

“Diversity and inclusion are expensive; you need to have the right structures,” he said, citing UIC’s multiple cultural centers as one way they’ve built supports to help underrepresented students on campus. There are centers for African American, Latino, and Arab students. There are also centers for women, gender identity and a disability cultural center.

“This gives them the space where they’re comfortable, where they can go and spend time and belong,” he said.

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which is also seeing enrollment climb, incoming students have increasingly higher standardized test scores and GPAs, But at UIC, students are coming in at the same academic level they were seven years ago, a sign UIC is trying to stay true to its original mission of being accessible to all.

But Amiridis says the school can’t grow forever. They’ve already capped enrollment in the popular computer science department. Eventually, they’ll reach their limit of between 35,000 and 40,000 students.

As they work toward that number, Amiridis says the school needs to strike a balance:

“If were not accessible anymore to students of Chicago than that’s a problem in terms of our mission,” he said.

For now, though, as other schools across Illinois see their numbers shrink, Amirdis and other UIC leaders are celebrating the prosperity.

Kate McGee covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @McGeeReports.